Review: ‘Silence of the Sea’

Feelings of inconsolable exile find affecting expression in Vahid Mousaian's exquisitely directed second feature, a depiction of a modern man alone and nearly suicidal in a strange corner of his homeland. Fine fest run over the past year could reap rewards with distrib interest in territories friendly to high-end Iranian work.

Feelings of inconsolable exile find affecting expression in Vahid Mousaian’s “Silence of the Sea.” Exquisitely directed, Mousaian’s second feature (after 2002 Moscow fest award-winner “Wishes of the Land”) is a personal breakthrough while at the same time tipping a hat to masters such as Kiarostami in its depiction of a modern man alone and nearly suicidal in a strange corner of his homeland. Fine fest run over the past year could reap rewards with distrib interest in territories friendly to high-end Iranian work.

Part of the film’s accomplishment stems from a finely tuned mix of innovative filmmaking and clear references to a host of recent pics, most directly Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” and “The Wind Will Carry Us.” Setting the pic on an island in the Persian Gulf in Iran’s “free trade” zone calls to mind Babak Payami’s “Secret Ballot,” Marzieh Meshkini’s “The Day I Became a Woman” and Kiyanoush Ayari’s “Iranian Spread.” The islands have attained symbolic meaning for Iranian filmmakers as a kind of refuge from the more oppressive and regulated mainland, and also a place of wildcat capitalists smuggling cheap goods. Also, like those films, “Silence of the Sea” mixes comedy in with its drama.

For Sia (Masoud Rayegan), the island of Qheshm is just a stopover before his eventual journey to the home from which he’s been exiled for decades.

The extraordinary and sometimes disorienting seven-minute opener, lensed in color-saturated video, shifts from TV tape images of Sia’s parents lamenting his absence to voiceover conversation between Sia and his Swedish wife Harriet (who’s never seen) discussing Sia’s internal conflicts accompanied by a montage of scenes in an unidentified Swedish city. Feeling he’s been a bad son by moving to Sweden and falling out of touch with his parents, Sia is reminded by Harriet that if he must go back to Iran on a solo mission of reconnection, neither should he forget about his new family in Sweden.

In an ancient-looking Qheshm village, Sia finds himself in a series of often amusing situations with traditional and poor locals, and he makes friends with small-time wheeler-dealer Abdo (Hossein Sheydai), who secures him a cell phone.

Mousaian juxtaposes people against expressive landscapes, like helmer Ali Shah Hatami.

In a typical scene that subtly blends the symbolic (a large fishing boat being built on a vast, desolate coastal plain) and the humorous (Abdo puzzled at the odd sound of Swedish being spoken by Sia as he phones Harriet and his kids), pic effortlessly dramatizes the disconnectedness of those in exile.

“This is a strange place,” Sia tells Harriet in one of their frequent cell phone exchanges — and pic is sensitive to this strangeness, from the sight of a group of escaping boat people pursued and shot at by the Iranian coast guard to the comedy that emerges from an operator manning the village’s only phone and announcing messages over a public loudspeaker. Juxtaposition of ways of communicating — particularly Sia’s cell calls to Sweden and to his only Iranian friend — emerges as one of pic’s key and most powerful topics.

As with the lonely man in “Taste of Cherry,” Sia’s despair is never fully explained, but Rayegan’s alternately silent and loquacious performance, on screen for most of the film, conveys a deep-seated pain.

Sight and sound elements are a wonder under Mousaian’s sure and inventive hand — on the journey by boat to the Persian Gulf, vid images on a ferry reveal the cameraman to be Sia. Contributions from lenser Mohammad Reza Sokout, editor Nazanin Mofakham and composer Fereydoun Shahbazian are outstanding.

Silence of the Sea

Iran

Production

An Intl. Film & Video Center presentation of an Intl. Film & Video Center/Tuba Film production. (International sales: Intl. Film & Video, Maywood, N.J.) Produced by Bahman Maghsoudlou, Rouhollah Baradari. Executive producers, Maghsoudlou, Baradari, Masoud Atyabi. Directed, written by Vahid Mousaian.

Crew

Camera (Ershad Film Lab color, 35mm, DV-to-35mm), Mohammad Reza Sokout; editor, Nazanin Mofakham; music, Fereydoun Shahbazian; sound, Masoud Shahverdi. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema), Jan. 16, 2004. (Also in Santa Barbara Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Masoud Rayegan, Hossein Sheydai, Mosa Zakeri. (Farsi, Swedish dialogue)
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