Corrections were made to this review on May 10, 2005.
Tunisian writer, painter and storyteller Nacer Khemir makes his third venture into feature filmmaking with “Bab’Aziz,” an Arabian dream that weaves timeless story threads with mystical and Sufi elements into a beautiful film object. Having said that, Khemir’s exotica is a taste that either appeals or doesn’t; individual viewers may find it as fascinating as reading a new chapter of 1,001 Nights or as insubstantial as fairy dust. Good festival exposure will be a prerequisite for convincing arthouse buyers, though pic’s touch of magic should easily charm small screen programmers.
The film screened at its Fajr Festival premier is reportedly still being fine-tuned by the director, who is adding a credit sequence that will become part of the story. The Iranian version also makes a few cuts, like removing shots of women dancing, which will appear in the international version.
Like the director’s previous films, “Markers of the Desert” and “The Dove’s Lost Necklace,” the visuals are primary, but here are tightened by strong story elements, and even stories-within-stories. In the middle of the desert, Bab’Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) is a wise, elegant old gent on his way to a conference of dervishes, which takes place every 30 years. The appointment, he explains to his young granddaughter Ishtar (Maryam Hamid), is never fixed in a certain place, but “those who are invited will find their way.”
To entertain her on their journey, he starts telling the story of a handsome young prince who becomes absorbed in contemplating his reflection in a pool of water. He completely forgets his kingdom and his people forget him. The tale is reprised several times, concluding the pic with a satisfying twist.
Along the way, Bab’Aziz and Ishtar meet assorted characters going to the gathering. There is a young poet in love with the beautiful dervish Nour (Golshifteh Farahani), an angry youth seeking revenge on a red dervish who has killed his brother, djinns lying in graves. The meeting itself, saturated with song and dance, color and magic, comes off as one hell of a party.
Shot largely in Iran, the visuals by cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari are stunning. Locations include the ancient city of Bam, filmed months before the city was destroyed by an earthquake. In this timeless world, occasional modern intrusions like motorcycles and airplanes lend a piquant touch entirely in keeping with the mystical theme.