After losing his family during the run-up to Iran’s disputed 2009 elections, a Tehrani man snaps and turns sniper in “The Hunter,” the low-key fifth feature from Iranian helmer Rafi Pitts (“It’s Winter”). With its stripped-down narrative left purposefully oblique, the indirect storytelling allows different readings: Some may find it a political statement of sorts, while others dismiss it as irritatingly obscure and uninvolving. Boasting expressive landscapes and a strong, visceral sound design, the downbeat pic is specialty fare with limited appeal outside the fest circuit.
Ex-con Ali (director Pitts, giving a numb performance in which he barely speaks) lives in Tehran, so noisy and full of nerve-jangling traffic that it resembles L.A. at rush hour. He shares a tiny apartment in a high-rise overlooking the highway with wife Sara (Mitra Hajjar) and 6-year-old daughter Saba (Saba Yaghoobi). From time to time, he’s shown hunting in quiet, snowy hills far from the city.
One night, Sara and Saba fail to return home. After a frustrating wait at the police station, Ali learns that Sara’s been killed in crossfire between police and protestors. After it seems that his daughter died, too, Ali takes his high-powered scope rifle and shoots two policemen.
As the action moves along with the fleeing Ali from an urban landscape of concrete and expressways to the hinterlands’ misty forests, the attenuated second half often feels like a completely different film. Here, the focus falls on a pair of feuding policemen who take him captive, leading to, depending on how one reads it, an ironic or cynical ending.
Just as Shirin Neshat’s recent “Women Without Men” gained resonance from the massive protests following Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s re-election, so, too, does “Hunter” seem to echo the current political opposition zeitgeist in spite of the fact that it was shot during the election campaign. Someone, somewhere, is sure to draw a parallel between the death of Sara and that of Neda Agha-Soltan in protests in Iran last June, or link Ali’s green car and green apartment walls with Iran’s Green Revolution.
However, what’s more of a political statement — yet still open to interpretation — is the first shot of the opening-credits sequence (accompanied by loud heavy-metal music). Here, the camera gradually pulls back to reveal a photo of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, circa 1980, about to drive their motorcycles over a giant replica of the American flag.
Apart from sweet-faced Hajjar, who doesn’t get much screen time as Sara, the cast is entirely nonpro. The stressed-looking Pitts was forced to take on the main role when his leading actor proved unreliable; art director Malak Khazai, Pitts’ real mother, plays Ali’s mother.
As in “It’s Winter,” ace lenser Mohammad Davoodi provides stunning long shots locating small human figures in powerful landscapes that seem to overwhelm them, while poetic cutting by Pitts’ regular editor, Hassan Hassandoost, sets the emotional temperature.