Film-within-a-film “7 Days in Tehran,” 32-year-old Reza Khatibi’s debut feature, is a representation of the director’s feeling of statelessness since his emigration to France from Tehran at age 16. Touching on themes of the emigrant generation coming to terms with its heritage, as well as the simultaneous isolationism and globalism within Iran, pic is a heartfelt exercise in self-analysis that too often loses its way amid dead-end subplots and assorted indulgences. Still, timely and topical pic should receive a generally warm reception on the fest circuit, with limited commercial play possible in markets that favor Iranian imports.
The structure of Khatibi’s film is borrowed from an Iranian cinema tradition: the director as star and interlocutor, without a hint of narcissism. Here, Khatibi plays himself, an exiled Iranian filmmaker returning to Tehran for the first time in more than a decade, French television crew in tow, planning to make a documentary about the youth of his homeland. But almost immediately, Khatibi is timid about the questions he asks, hesitant to be controversial. His on-camera host, the Farsi-fluent Frenchman Franck (Goldmund Seiller), wants to make a grittier expose — a political film — and he and Khatibi nearly come to blows over it.
The multiple layers of reality don’t reduce the exhilaration of seeing a film shot live on the streets of Tehran. Amazingly, given their somewhat subversive intent (the film was promptly banned by censors after its premiere at the Fajr Film Festival earlier this year), Khatibi and company were allowed by the Iranian government to shoot all over Tehran, with a resulting off-the-cuff energy that’s electric.
The best moments in “7 Days in Tehran” come early on, as Khatibi returns home and is reunited with his mother. There follow a few gloriously subtle and perceptive scenes exploring the generation and cultural gaps, most notably Khatibi’s mother complaining that her grandchild does not understand Farsi and, therefore, cannot talk to her, and Khatibi stifling shame at what he takes to be antiquated cultural rituals during a family dinner. Like the best Iranian filmmakers, Khatibi demonstrates a natural affinity for cultural observation via an unfussy visual style. In fact, the theme of an Iranian expatriate returning home to observe these changes creates parallels to Bahman Farmanara’s “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine.”
But just as Khatibi the fictional documentarian is averse to making his work too political, so Khatibi the film director seems a bit too preoccupied with the vision of Iran he is creating. It is unlikely, for example, that college students, especially female ones, would be as quick to express their discontent on-camera as is shown by Khatibi’s film-within-the-film. Moreover, a subplot concerning Franck’s reunion with a former colleague (Esfandiar Esfandi), who’s working as a drama teacher in Tehran and dying of cancer, builds an overly sentimental climax that recalls “Beaches” or “Terms of Endearment.”
Still, there are some tender and thoughtful scenes between Seiller and Esfandi, and Seiller in particular gives a commanding performance as an idealist caught up in far from ideal circumstances. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is not where “7 Days in Tehran” belongs; Khatibi and his identity conflict should be the focus. His decision to center the action on Franck feels calculated, as if the helmer thought a Caucasian protagonist would give the film better international crossover prospects.