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Venice Film Review: ‘Tales’

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad returns to fiction with this compilation of stories revisiting characters and themes from her previous features.

Fatemeh Motamed Aria, Peiman Moadi, Baran Kosari, Farhad Aslani, Mohammadreza Forootan, Golab Adineh, Mehdi Hashemi, Atefeh Razavi, Habib Rezaei, Hassan Majooni, Mehraveh Sharifinia, Shahrokh Forootanian, Rima Raminfar, Babak Hamidian, Negar Javaherian.

Iran’s best-known distaff helmer, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, gathers strands from her previous dramas for a summation of her career and her nation in “Tales.” The film was ostensibly conceived as a series of shorts, making it possible to get a license under the Ahmadinejad regime, but with the current government she’s been able to string together these stories of crushed hopes, addiction, abuse, and love. Like much here, the use of a docu filmmaker as a protag to make pointed remarks about the necessity of socially engaged cinema is rather too easy, yet the script excels at dialogue negotiating the male-female divide. A small international release is possible.

For the past eight years, Bani-Etemad stuck to documentaries, unwilling to make the compromises necessary under Ahmadinejad to get a feature made. Now that Iran’s government is friendlier to culture, she’s released this film, begun under the previous regime. It’s helpful, but hardly necessary, to be familiar with Bani-Etemad’s previous work (“Under the City’s Skin,” “Gilaneh,” etc.), since the characters in “Tales” are mostly people she’s brought in from earlier pics. Knowing them provides additional depth, though there’s no loss of comprehension without it.

Equally, an acquaintance with the director’s themes – drug addiction, prostitution, working-class issues – strengthens some of these stories, enabling long-time followers to see where she’s going. That’s a good and bad thing, since there’s an obviousness in “Tales” that means, as far as storylines are concerned, the film offers few surprises. However, a fine ear for conversations and a sure-handed way with many of Iran’s top actors continually spark interest.

A docu helmer (Habib Rezaei) is making a movie about workers trampled by the corrupt capitalist machine. He speaks with Abbas (Mohammadreza Forootan), a taxi driver by necessity, working extra shifts to get out of the financial hole he tumbled into after seriously bad choices seen in “Under the City.” Abbas picks up a woman and sick kid thinking they’ll be regular clients —the mother turns out to be childhood friend Masoomeh (Mehraveh Sharifinia), now a prostitute.

Abbas’ mother, Tooba (Golab Adineh), is trying to get nine months’ back-pay from her former bosses, who closed down the factory and ran off. At a government office the illiterate woman is helped by another petitioner, Mohammad Halimi (Mehdi Hashemi), screwed by the system and now compounded by an obnoxious bureaucrat (Hassan Majooni). Halimi’s basic decency is constantly tested by contemporary society — even on the subway, he overhears what he thinks is an extramarital couple into S&M.

They’re actually brother (Babak Hamidian) and sister (Negar Javaherian) plotting to stage the sister’s kidnapping to punish their rich father (presumably these two will reappear in Banietemad’s next movie). Also on the subway is Dr. Dabiri (Shahrokh Forootanian), the one-armed doctor from “Gilaneh,” volunteering at an NGO for addicted women run by Mrs. Monshizadeh (Rima Raminfar). She tries to protect Nargess (Atefeh Razavi, playing the same character from “Nargess”), a frightened woman whose abusive husband scarred her face with boiling water.

Reza (Farhad Aslani), a former co-worker with Tooba, is suspicious when his wife, Nobar (Fatemeh Motamed Aria), receives a letter from her former husband. Worn down by suspicion and crushed dreams, Nobar, last seen in “The Blue-Veiled,” isn’t prepared for the missive’s contents. The last and best tale is set in a taxi, where former addict Sarah (Baran Kosari) is escorting a suicidal junkie back to the residence. Driver Hamed (Peiman Moadi, “A Separation”), a would-be engineer kicked out of university because of his political activism, is interested in Sarah, but the flinty young woman, last seen in “Mainline,” has erected numerous walls around herself.

Of course the documaker returns at the end, saying things like “no film ever stays in a drawer” — lines that pointedly refer back to Bani-Etemad as well as all filmmakers who push the boundaries of freedom of expression in censorious societies. The sentiment is important, yet did it really need to be so baldly stated, as if viewers weren’t already aware of the character’s purpose? More interesting is the conception of male-female relations, from the older couples in which women are long-suffering victims of impotent male rage to the younger generation, whose women display marked intellectual superiority and demand to be considered as equals.

Especially for audiences unfamiliar with the director’s past work, it was vital that the actors imbue their characters with enough interest to suggest significant depth during their brief screen time. Fortunately, that’s not a problem, and all the performances here are fluid, relaxed and well rounded. It’s especially good to see Motamed Aria’s welcome return to film, after several years of being banned from working. Worth singling out, too, are Kosari and Moadi, beautiful negotiating the complex interplay in the pic’s penultimate scene, and making the wordiness feel vital.

Tech credits are equally strong in all the tales. However, using the docu helmer’s DV cam onscreen is unnecessary and distracting.

Venice Film Review: 'Tales'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 28, 2014. (Also in Toronto — Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 91 MIN. (Original title: “Ghesseha”)

Production: (Iran) A Kanoon Iran Novin production. (International sales: Noori Pictures, Paris.) Produced by Rakhshan Banietemad. Executive producer, Maryam Shafiee.

Crew: Directed by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Screenplay, Banietemad, Farid Mostafavi. Camera (color), Koohyar Kalari; editor, Sepideh Abdolvahab; music, Siamak Kalantari; production designer/costume designer, Amir Esbati; sound, Yadollah Najafi, Amirhossein Ghassemi.

With: Fatemeh Motamed Aria, Peiman Moadi, Baran Kosari, Farhad Aslani, Mohammadreza Forootan, Golab Adineh, Mehdi Hashemi, Atefeh Razavi, Habib Rezaei, Hassan Majooni, Mehraveh Sharifinia, Shahrokh Forootanian, Rima Raminfar, Babak Hamidian, Negar Javaherian.

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