Boy Samad Khani
Director Abolfazl Jalili
Plastic Surgeon Fazlali Ahayeri
Surgeon Mohammad Ashayeri
Competing in Venice under the auspices of helmer Abbas Kiarostami as a replacement for his own unavailable film, “A True Story” falls squarely into the best Iranian tradition of presenting social reportage through a style of blindingly sincere realism.
This tale of a director in search of an actor for his film could have been cribbed from Kiarostami’s “Under the Olive Trees” or Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Salaam , Cinema,” except that it takes an unusual turn when the boy chosen for a role becomes the subject of the film itself. Despite its intrinsic difficulty and two-hour-plus running time, pic becomes progressively more engrossing and moves audiences deeply in its final scenes. It will be a tough sell abroad, but could ride in on the coattails of other well-liked Iranian films.
This is one of those cases where distinguishing between documentary and fiction is purely academic. Basically the film is a carefully structured documentary that includes the film crew in its visual field. Director Abolfazl Jalili, playing himself, casually meets Samad Khani, a 10-year-old boy with a wide grin and huge eyes who works in a bakery, and invites him to test for a role in a film he’s prepping.
The boy proves elusive, and Jalili discovers that he comes from a broken home and often sleeps on the street. Samad has a limp that turns out to be a major health problem, the result of burns suffered as a child. When Jalili learns the boy risks having his leg amputated if it’s not treated, he calls a heart-to-heart meeting with his crew and announces his decision not to abandon the lad, but to completely change the film into a study of Samad’s life and illness.
Pic shows all of Kiarostami’s great humanity in its attitude toward the young boy and his family back in the country, who sold their color TV and refrigerator to pay for botched medical treatment when Samad got burned. A scene in which Jalili uses a hard line to get Samad to cry on camera ends in a conciliatory embrace.
A blind musician called in to play a haunting melody on his portable keyboard moves Samad to tears. And the final sequence in the hospital, which includes some strong scenes in the operating room, is punctuated by the tension and concern of Samad’s friends and relatives.
What the film lacks is a playful side. For Jalili, the world of street kids is made up of pain and self-reliance. There is one pleasant interval when Samad introduces a girl he likes to Jalili, but generally it is hard to see much light at the end of the tunnel.
Besides showing the poor and underprivileged as valuable human beings, Jalili’s other major concern is being honest with the viewer about how he is shooting his subject. The camera, boom and crew are always foregrounded to persuade us of the reality of what we see. Bits of video are intercut with 35mm footage, hand-held camera movements are foregrounded, color alternates with black-and-white, and sound is rigorously live.
Though not a visually beautiful film, “A True Story” has a rough-hewn look that is almost stylish. Editing (by Manouchehr Oliai and Jalili) shapes the material into a carefully structured tale whose forward movement is provided by the approaching operation. A bold trim would help the story’s overall rhythm.