A close-up look at a woman’s suffering, “Gilaneh” is a strikingly photographed character-centered drama oozing moral integrity, but also bleakly anguishing to watch. Iran’s premier femme helmer Rakhshan Bani-Etemad smoothly teams with long-time collaborator Mohsen Abdolvahab and actress Fatemeh Motamed Arya to tell the tale of an Iranian Mother Courage whose beloved only son returns from the Iran-Iraq war a helpless invalid, and lives to see the Iraqi war waged by the U.S. and its allies. Most topical in its anti-war message, it will need strong critical support to move beyond probable fest prizes to larger audiences.
We first meet Gilaneh (Motamed Arya), a simple country woman, on Iranian New Year’s 1988, when the Iraqis are targeting Teheran with missiles. Her handsome son Ishmael (Bahram Radan), engaged to be married, is off to the war to the sound of patriotic music blaring from the loudspeaker on a truck bed, while her headstrong pregnant daughter Maygol (Baran Kosari) insists on making the dangerous journey to Teheran to meet her husband, who has deserted.
In a neat temporal division, the first half of the pic traces Gilaneh and Maygol’s hair-raising trip on foot and bus to the city, which everyone else is fleeing. The closer they get, the greater their apprehension over what they might find in the young couple’s home.
Second half is set on New Year’s 15 years later: precisely, March 20, 2003, the day the United States began bombing Baghdad. Showing her years, Gilaneh cares for her bedridden son, who has been wounded in the war by chemical weapons and whose health is constantly deteriorating. A kindly one-armed doctor (Shahrokh Foroutanian) can do nothing to persuade her to allow the son to go to a veteran’s home. Instead, she stubbornly clings to the impossible dream of marrying him off to a war widow from a distant town.
Entire film hinges around Motamed Arya’s extraordinarily vital perf as the selfless mother who won’t give up, but whose obsession also has darker overtones. She is one of those people who has lived through a key moment in history and been stranded in a noisy, banal modern world that doesn’t recognize her sacrifice. Only toward film’s end does her shrill cheerfulness ring a little hollow, as she descends into a pathos that ought to have been avoided. Kosari glows with foolish intensity as her lovelorn daughter.
On another level, however, the film is a powerful reflection on the current war in Iraq. The enormous pain and losses that Saddam Hussein’s war machine inflicted on innocent Iranians like Gilaneh is at once vindicated by the American bombs and repeated in all its horror. “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” comments one character gruffly. But the heroine’s great heart is certainly not bent on vengeance; for Gilaneh, the new war is irrelevant. Wisely, the film refrains from direct comment, but the moral conundrum is there for those viewers who want to take it up.
The intense acting and emotion are often theatrical, but dispelling the stagey feeling is cinematographer Morteza Poursamadi’s sensual grasp of place, imbuing the wind-swept green hills of Gilaneh’s farm country with feeling and meaning. The striking visuals help, but don’t fully compensate for a lack of story momentum, however, particularly in the second part.