The striking visuals and pointed metaphors of Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Iron Island” were merely a run-up to the eye-catching compositions and invented mythologies of “The White Meadows.” Shot on the islands and otherworldly salt formations of Iran’s Lake Urmia, the pic follows an itinerant collector of human tears who visits villages to hear peoples’ sorrows. Though rich in allegory, the film keeps its symbolism obscure enough to evade both Iranian censors and filmgoers looking for obvious critiques of the current political situation, but its beauty and always fascinating imagery should attract a steadfast fest crowd.
The pale, soft white of the lakeshore’s salt flats merge with the pallid sky and the colorless water, eliminating a defining horizon and playing havoc with any sense of visual orientation. Such a landscape is the ideal setting for creating a new mythology. Grave, respectful Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) rows his small boat from community to community, seeking out stories among the locals struggling with an exponential rise in water salinity. The first stop is a village where an attractive young woman died; a local remarks that she moved her body too provocatively to live among them. The body is preserved in salt and kept in a cave whose salt stalactites increase the sense of a timeless community at the edge of the world.
After collecting tears in a small glass phial, Rahmat rows the body out to sea, but on removing the shroud, he discovers the very alive Nassim (Younes Ghazali, “Among the Clouds”), a young man eager to leave the village and search for his lost father. Rahmat reluctantly allows Nissim to accompany him, provided the teen pretends to be a deaf-mute so his presence won’t hinder the older man’s work.
In another village, the dwarf Khojatesh (Omid Zare), laden with countless glass jars in which people whisper their woes, is lowered into a well. The legend says he must deliver them to the fairy in the well just before sunrise, but he’s slow getting to the bottom. Elsewhere, a beautiful woman is forcibly made a bride of the sea, while on another island, an artist is punished for not seeing colors “properly.”
Undoubtedly, each of Rahmat’s Odyssean adventures has a parallel with the Iran of today, though it’s just as easy to fall under the pic’s spell without linking it to concrete political and social events. Some auds will feel frustrated by the lack of explanation — even the film’s characters aren’t certain why Rahmat collects tears, and what he does with them afterward — but those willing to open up to Rasoulof’s mythological language should find themselves pleasantly intrigued by the tales and enchanted by the arresting images.
Whether in intense closeups focusing on the unexpected or long shots with groups of black-clad figures moving across the salt flats (recalling elements of Shirin Neshat’s video work), the pic’s visuals are a continual source of surprise and wonder. Following his work with the Makhmalbaf family, d.p. Ebrahim Ghafouri proves his adaptability with richly conceived frames that make the most of a limited palette.