An exciting experimental work from Mohammad Shirvani, whose short films have already received attention, “Navel” pushes the limits of Iranian cinema with its uncharacteristic style and taboo subject matter: four men and a girl rooming together in a Teheran apartment. Its refreshing, laid-back approach to everyday conversation and human concerns say a lot about the individual’s loneliness in urban society. At the same time, pic’s non-narrative approach and constantly moving DV camera will probably limit it to festival appreciation.
Hardly a story at all, “Navel” tracks its characters as they talk in the apartment, on a terrace and inside a moving car. The setting is nearly always nighttime and claustrophobic. Most sympathetic is Chista (Mana Rabiee), an attractive young woman who has returned to Iran after living in the United States. She’s not perfectly fluent in Persian and lapses into English words now and then, bringing her closer to Western audiences. Her viewpoint is also familiarly American: teasing, anti-smoking, eager to remove her headscarf. As film begins, she has a lover who has left her brokenhearted; as it ends, she tries to erase the pain of her femininity with a radical gesture.
It’s never clear why these people are living together, or even who they are. Mani (Ali Hooshmand), who owns a DV camera and is supposedly taping everything we see, is attracted to Chista, but she gently repulses him. Khosrow (Khosrow Hassanzadeh) is a good-looking divorced man with a child; Reza (Reza Hassanzadeh), who wears a beard, is a former cleric who clings uncertainly to his old beliefs. Amazingly, they talk freely about sex (“God gave us hands and skin for earthly love”) and sin (“without sin, people would have nothing to do”) in a way at once Western and exotic. Underlying their words, and their apparent separation from each other, is a poignant sadness.
Unusual in an Iranian film is the use of symbolic images to build atmosphere, like a baby being “unborn” back into its mother’s womb, or a naked man floating underwater.
Cast is composed of non-pros, although Rabiee has appeared in a New York stage work by Shirin Neshat. Presenting a kind of cross-section of Iranian society, they get unusually close to the viewer, thanks also to Shirvani’s intimate DV camerawork. The nervously moving images, sometimes superimposed, switch between black-and-white and desaturated color. Their modern look recalls the work of New York-based filmmaker Amir Naderi more than it does local Iranian models.