A bespectacled Iranian official races across unfamiliar terrain to prevent the titular number of Kurdish girls from committing suicide in Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zamapira’s semi-surrealist road movie “About 111 Girls.” Traversing a succession of breathtaking vistas that include bizarre encounters in strange locations, the mission transmogrifies from bureaucratic obligation to desperate commitment. What begins as cross-cultural comedy quickly assumes more absurdist, then more political and, finally, even darker coloration as the bureaucrat travels deeper into Kurdistan. Arthouses may prove this Iranian pic’s final destination.
The young women are threatening suicide not only in reaction to the lack of marriageable young men in an area that offers no employment opportunities, but also to protest the failure of the Iranian government to seriously address Kurdish problems. The bureaucrat Donyadideh (Reza Behboodi) has only four day to resolve the situation by finding husbands and/or locating the girls to dissuade them from self-destruction.
But misadventures and blind alleys await Donyadideh and his little entourage — sensitive chauffeur Sadeghi (Amin Sadeghi) and a Kurdish boy who serves as a guide — at every turn. Coming across a group of young men in a field in the middle of nowhere, Donyadideh tries to enlist them in his cause, to no avail. When the trio’s car breaks down, they must cool their heels in a Kurdish village full of schoolchildren whose male teacher is absent, reportedly spirited away by women. Later, after the vehicle gets stuck in a ditch, they ask some peasants to help push it out, only to watch it roll over the side of a mountain.
Events unfold with quasi-hallucinatory strangeness. The travelers come across a captive covered in a large burlap bag, with only his legs visible, about to be shot for adultery by soldiers. They later see the same man, still wrapped in burlap, blindly running down the road, bumping into objects along the way. At a labyrinthine tavern, a succession of rooms hosts a motley assortment of activities: traditionally garbed elders engaged in deep discussion around a table … a female singer silhouetted behind a sheet … a screening of “Avatar.”
But the directors reserve the most dreamlike experiences for Sadeghi, who takes medication that only partially explains his prescient visions. Resting at a waterhole, he sees a soaking-wet young woman descend stairs and lie down beside him, while a wide circle of murmuring women is reflected on the surface of the water. The women return in Sadeghi’s nocturnal black-and-white walkabout, where they float motionless in a watery grave.
In some ways, “Girls” seems an archetypical Iranian road movie, recalling Samira Makhmalbaf’s “Blackboards” and Abbas Kiarostami’s many excursions into unknown countrysides. But it most tellingly evokes Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s “Half Moon” with its haunting tableaux of banned women musicians stretching across a village’s rooftops, perhaps unsurprisingly, since Bahman produced, co-edited and wrote the story outline for this, his sister’s film.