Naghi Nemati’s “Three and a Half” starts off with a bang — or rather, three bangs and a distraught woman with a gun fleeing an apartment. It grabs the attention, which the pic continues to do despite moments when its narration and editing feel unintentionally confusing. That the helmer (“Those Three”) keeps interest high is a credit to his intriguing characters and the three terrific actresses playing forcefully independent-minded prisoners on leave, waiting to be smuggled out of the country. Pic’s underground yet professional feel and inherently critical take on Iran probably preclude home play, yet fests have been welcoming.
The initial blast occurs in a flash-forward which the remainder of the film works toward. The shooter is Hanieh (Samaneh Vafaiezadeh), the oldest and most mature of three friends in touch with smugglers near the Azerbaijan border. The other two, Banafsheh (Shooka Karimi) and Homa (Negar Hassanzadeh), are strong-willed and abrasive; Homa’s swagger wouldn’t be out of place on the streets of New York. The three are on a short furlough from prison, determined not to go back.
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Things don’t go as planned. Hanieh secretly cancels their appointment with the human traffickers, though this part remains unclear and they still have a meeting with Nader (Mehdi Poormoosa) near the frontier. The crossing is postponed when some of the smugglers get caught, and further complications arise when Hanieh reluctantly reveals she’s pregnant.
Production notes say she learns she’s HIV-positive too, though this detail isn’t apparent in the film. This narrative confusion unfortunately infects quite a bit of the plot, and there are times when viewers may wonder if there are temporal shifts (apart from the first scene, there are not). Hanieh is apparently a doctor and the other two are med students, though this may be a smokescreen for their jailbird status; in any event, the reason for their imprisonment is never revealed.
Even without the initial shooting, Nemati conveys an understated sense of impending disaster that does much to keep viewer attention taut. Pic unquestionably belongs to the new school of Iranian cinema, one that eschews metaphors or simple stories and instead plunges into the nitty-gritty of a society dangerously at odds with itself. Duplicity, aggression and ruthless selfishness are the hallmarks of this world, which picks up on the most nihilistic elements of classic noir and refracts them through the particularly unyielding turmoil of the Iranian state. “Three and a Half” contains all of this, and even if the plot isn’t always clear, the critique is unmistakable.
The three leads, all unknown to Western auds, are equally strong, from Vafaiezadeh’s preoccupied distress to Karimi and Hassanzadeh’s hard-edged cockiness. If the authorities let them, this trio should go far in the thesping world. Handheld lensing is in keeping with the pic’s indie nature.