While mainstream Iranian cinema is rich in dramatic genres, the country’s art film exports normally steer clear of such entertainment. “The Forbidden Chapter” is an exception. A down-at-heel detective is sent to his hometown to investigate a serial killer who targets prostitutes, and finds himself sucked into an ugly collusion between the police and a cult of religious fanatics. Sounds good, but Fariborz Kamkari’s screenplay loses its way in a messy plot whose heavy-handed aim is to say shocking things about the misogyny and hypocrisy of Iranian officialdom. Even viewers who agree with him entirely will find this attempt clumsy.
In contrast to Kamkari’s better structured first film “Black Tape,” which struck a chord via the exploited heroine’s strong emotional appeal, here police investigator Habib (Faramarz Gharibian) offers a weak anchor for the filmmaker’s indignation at the political, religious, ethical and human wrongs going on in his country. Habib’s only redeeming characteristics are those of Sam Spade: underneath that weather-beaten face and nagging drug problem beats a stubborn, honest heart.
Though it follows an American police thriller formula, pic has too much on its mind to offer much satisfaction in that department. Intercut with Habib’s arrival in Mashad, a holy city full of painful memories for him, are the strange goings-on at a Muslim religious school. Its head, the Master (stage thesp and director Farhad Mohandespour), is a cruel lecher who doesn’t practice what he preaches. When a mentally unbalanced student deliberately blows himself up in the courtyard after suicide-bomber training, the Master distastefully instructs the other students to pick up the pieces.
Meanwhile, a fearsome shadow is haunting the sacred streets of the city, knocking off ladies of the night. Viewers immediately realize this is probably Sayef (Nima Hassandokht), the school’s most wild-eyed fanatic, a handsome young blade with shoulder-length hair. When the Master gives him a bath one night, there is little doubt he’s the favorite.
Hokey as it is, the religious school is far more interesting and exotic than Habib’s hapless attempts to catch the killer. Clues — a puppet left at the scene of each crime — soon lead him to the sassy young prostitute and puppet-maker Leila (Negar Abedi.)
Yet the closer he gets to the truth, the less the authorities like it. Habib’s unmotivated friendship with Sayef leads to a confused final showdown.
Gharibian, a star in Iran, tends to look more like a Shakespearean tragedian than a gumshoe, with a lack of warmth that keeps auds from worrying much about him. Hassandokht makes an eye-catching debut in the juicy role of Sayef. Abedi, a stage thesp, stands out as the bold Leila.
Visuals are often hard to distinguish amid the pic’s dark, rainy look, and frequent scene cuts seem to imitate an undigested Western editing style. Yet the film does contain some striking imagery, like the memorable scene of white-garbed students dancing around a fire. In another moment, Kazem Shahbazi’s camera captures the arched school precincts with the sinister shadows of Hitchcock’s London. Peyman Yazdanian’s score ranges masterfully from drumbeats to cello.