The paradox of an Islamic fundamentalist nation-state prohibiting citizens from crossing a border for religious visits to a holy site is brilliantly chronicled in Bahman Kiarostami’s “Pilgrimage.” Recognition of this filmmaking son of Abbas Kiarostami as a prominent and enormously gifted filmmaker is overdue, and, with his 10th docu, he extends his ability to perceptively view the clash between old and new in Iranian culture beyond what he did in his recent films “Two Bows” and “Infidels.” “Pilgrimage’s” strong global fest run should continue, and running time makes for ideal cable programming.
Kiarostami is forever sniffing out a good story, and his collaborator Mitra Farahani’s idea proves terrific: to explore what really goes on at the Iranian border town of Mehran, through which thousands of devout Shiite Muslims try daily to get to Karbala, home of the shrine of martyred Shiite holy man Imam Hussein.
Khosro Kouros’ fine but brief intro narration explains that 30 years of conflict between Iran and Iraq have kept the border closed, and now, with the ongoing war in Iraq, Iran continues to ban crossings.
And yet, the pilgrims keep coming, many packed into old trucks and covered with a tarp. Compared with such dedication, the cool words of an Iranian TV commentator chiding the pilgrims seems ineffectual. A clever montage (the first of many, often set to a Bach piano suite) is a mild indicator of peace: signs indicating the direction to Karbala change from war slogans on the sides of rusted, abandoned tanks to current-day commercial signage.
Beleaguered and bemused judiciary official Mohammed Barani is amazed at the risks pilgrims take; many die of dehydration or from stepping on live mines left from war. His attempt to undercut the paradox of a religious-based court punishing the religious is to mete out the lightest sentence allowable — one to three years.
Many are fined the equivalent of $6, but also claim they’re broke when confronted by officials. An undercurrent of the pic’s many scenes of pilgrims stuck in bureaucracy is the question of how much they’re playing for the film’s cameras. Still seeing religious folk mired in glum rooms run by sweaty, overworked government agents speaks volumes about the gap between piety and societal law.
Given its brevity, “Pilgrimage” contains an astonishing range of moods — from farcical to heart-rending — and topics, including the knotty individual cases of illegal pilgrims with dual citizenship, or a coroner’s handling of victims and their leftover belongings.
As with “Infidels,” Kiarostami’s sense of pacing and editing is razor-sharp, guided by a taste for anarchic human nature as well as a less-is-more aesthetic.