An enjoyable absurdist comedy set in a remote region of Iran during the presidential elections, “Secret Ballot” by Babak Payami (“One More Day”) uses humor to show the rocky path democracy must tread in a country that has been functioning for some time without it. Compared to the bolder Iranian filmmakers, Payami, a longtime resident of Canada who recently returned to Iran, at times seems overly cautious about stepping on official toes, and as a result the picture remains more of a divertissement than blazing political comment. It works well on this level, however, thanks to the pleasing simplicity of its fairy tale structure and Payami’s amused eye for the offbeat (he won Venice’s special jury prize for direction). Sony Pictures Classics, which acquired North American rights in Toronto, should find an open road ahead of it for this unusually light offering from the strong Iranian cinema.
Story was inspired by director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s short film “Testing Democracy,” in which a woman is parachuted into the sea clutching a ballot box. Here, film opens with a ballot box being parachuted onto a deserted beach, where two soldiers are stationed to watch for smugglers. This surreal, leisurely opening sets the tone for the fable-like tale that follows.
It is election day, and soon a boat pulls up with a young woman (Nassim Abdi) wearing a chador. To the surprise of the rather dense soldier on duty (Cyrus Abidi), she introduces herself as the election official whom he must escort to gather votes around the island. Though reluctant to accept orders from a female, he grudgingly gets out his rifle and jeep and they set off. There is a urgency to get back to the beach at 5 p.m. to catch her boat, “or the ballots will be invalid.”
The woman’s chatty, naive idealism immediately clashes with her escort’s brick-wall thinking. She, on the other hand, learns some important lessons as she comes face-to-face with reality in a remote, non-urban region. Both seem afflicted by terminal tunnel vision, yet their simple relationship modestly blooms by pic’s end.
Time and again the film illustrates the electoral process, which involves writing two candidates’ names on the ballot and getting your I.D. stamped.
The first “voter” they chance upon is scared of the soldier’s jeep and gun; he takes off running and has to be practically hunted down. The woman remarks that guns silence voters. Next, a man unloads a truckload of women, expecting to vote on behalf of all of them.
Payami doesn’t lose a chance to underline the contradictions of his society. A 12-year-old girl protests that she’s old enough to marry but not to vote (voting age is 16). In a nomadic camp, it’s the women who refuse to vote without their men’s permission.
The young official interrupts funerals, men at work, men at rest and anyone else who crosses her path. Much of the absurdist humor, like a red light on a desert road, will only earn a smile in the West, though it may well get big laughs at home. The retold joke of her explaining to the populace how to vote also grows stale, but may be valuable education for local audiences.
The hyper Abdi and inert Abidi, both non-pro thesps, play off each other well, injecting the film with the guileless sincerity that has become the hallmark of Iranian cinema. Technically the film, lensed on lovely Kish Island in the Persian Gulf by Farzad Jodat and professionally developed in Italy at Cinecitta, looks quite good. Michael Galasso’s listenable score bysteps traditional music in favor of a mixed blend, East-West sound.
Reviewed at Venice Film Festival, Sept. 4, 2001. Running time: 105 MIN.