Breaking from the style of his exemplary docu-fiction features, Bahman Ghobadi strains for quasi-poetic effect in the lumbering “Rhino Season.” Burdened with a complex flashback structure and an unemotional core, this multi-decade saga of an imprisoned Iranian poet and his family has surprisingly little resonance. Ghobadi’s name will automatically draw buyer interest, but the new pic’s departure from his known brand of Kurdish cinema will depress biz.
While Ghobadi is to applauded for daring to shift far outside his comfort zone, his previous docu-fiction hybrid, “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” also marked a striking change of pace, but that pic’s loose-and-hip view of young Tehran felt more personal and vital than the lugubrious storytelling here.
Incarcerated poet Sahel (Caner Cindoruk), deemed politically unacceptable by the Islamic regime, finds himself descending into what Ghobadi stages as the Iranian prison version of the seven circles of hell. The setting, envisioned by talented cinematographer Touraj Aslani with no limits to its sheer ghoulishness and dankness, is a couple of decades in the past, as marked by a regular cycle of flashbacks from the present, when older Sahel (Behrouz Vossoughi) is finally freed and searches for his wife, Mina (Monica Bellucci).
Further complicating the narrative is a set of even earlier scenes establishing the couple’s relationship before Sahel’s imprisonment, with their driver, Akbar (Yilmaz Erdogan), yearning for the gorgeous Mina and seething with jealousy. These emotional entanglements play out in a series of sequences whose impact is undermined by the time-shifting structure and a decidedly cool, mannered style reminiscent of middling Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Extended, dialogue-free sections favor Bellucci, who delivers by far the most affecting performance, and masters her few lines in Farsi, but reduce Vossoughi to a great deal of staring and brooding.
Ghobadi appears to go out of his way to find gravity-defying ways to position his camera, but it becomes more of an exercise in cinematography than a way to more deeply visualize his saga. Production values are strong, and Bellucci’s involvement, as well as some effects-laden dream sequences (clumsily featuring animals in the titles of previous Ghobadi films, such as “Turtles Can Fly” and “A Time for Drunken Horses”), hint at a relatively high budget. Sahel’s character is modeled on Iranian poet Sadegh Karmangar, whose verse is periodically recited on the soundtrack.