An astonishing eye, a well-calibrated sense of discretion and a keen understanding of dignity are the unusually developed hallmarks of helmer Vahid Vakilifar’s debut, “Gesher.” Set in the gas refineries of southern Iran, the pic offers glimpses into the lives of three men, transplanted workers living in disused segments of concrete pipes who silently struggle to hold their heads up despite soul-crushing forces. Abu Dhabi’s prize for best feature by a new director should help “Gesher” connect with fest programmers and sales agents to achieve a targeted but enthusiastic arthouse reception.
The title is a term used in southern Iran for a barnacle-like mollusk that begins life as a delicate, vulnerable creature before developing a hard shell. It’s a just symbol for the movie’s characters, though the carapaces these men have grown are permeable and in constant need of renewal. The metaphor can be extended further to include the film’s entire production, since Vakilifar made “Gesher” without state backing and doesn’t have permission to show it outside Iran.
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Descriptions of the lives reproduced here will inevitably lead to assumptions that the pic is dreary or downbeat, but neither is the case. In fact, one of Vakilifar’s greatest talents is his ability to detail the degradation and still find a triumph of the spirit, so by the end, there’s a sense of uplift not gainsaid by earlier scenes of hardship. His ability to balance a sense of place with scenes that develop character make the impressionistic structure feel eminently satisfying and complete.
The terrain around the coastal town of Oslouyeh is a barren wasteland punctuated by gas refineries and their constant flames. It’s a place where the poorest of the poor go to find work, such as Jahan (Hossein Farzizadeh), an unofficial taxi driver who indulges his dream of elegance by photographing himself in dressing rooms wearing suits he could never afford. His friend Ghobad (Ghobad Rahmaninassab) does drudge work in the refinery, sending home money smuggled via stuffed animals.
The third character is Nezam (Abdolrassoul Daryapeyma), a quiet man who struggles — sometimes unsuccessfully — to maintain his dignity while cleaning fetid toilets with a pump that never works. Among the many memorable images here are shots of Nezam from behind, his feces-splattered T-shirt removed, sitting on a pipe and looking out to sea in a bid to regain, in solitude, his humanity.
Vakilifar weaves many such memorable moments throughout “Gesher,” crafting almost hallucinogenic sequences that occasionally recall the video installation work of Sherin Neshat, such as a group of men at sunset running towards large segments of concrete pipe. The three main characters come together each evening in these temporary shelters, where they cook and regain a bit of their self-esteem in the claustrophobic spaces they decorate with dreams of a better life.
Farzizadeh is the sole pro cast member, and while he’s given the lion’s share of scenes requiring interactions and reactions (which he modulates beautifully), his downplaying perfectly matches that of the other performers. Visuals are not without a certain frustration, since the HD shooting format and subsequent transfer have made the blacks too inky, though certain night sequences within the pipe perhaps benefit from the sunken darks, heightening the sense of an unreal place out of time. Sound, too, is expertly used, with frequent small explosions serving as a reminder of the industrial behemoth just outside.