We are now eight years into the 20-year filmmaking ban imposed on Iranian director Jafar Panahi, for allegedly making propaganda against his country’s regime. “3 Faces” is the fourth film he has made illicitly under conditions a lesser director might find paralyzing. But Panahi’s irrepressible, mischievous storytelling instinct has with tenacious regularity found its way through the cracks and onto the biggest international stages, even though the man himself cannot leave the country.
“This Is Not A Film,” “Closed Curtain,” and Berlin Golden Bear winner “Taxi” were all metafictions that saw him kick against those insupportable restrictions by making them his subject, and it’s been fascinating to watch the rough-and-ready style he developed out of necessity evolve into something of a distinctive aesthetic. That stylistic evolution continues with “3 Faces,” most noticeably with Amin Jafari’s graceful, often bravura handheld camerawork. But the really absorbing paradox here is that by shifting his focus away from his own lack of freedom and onto that of a whole underclass of Iranian womanhood, Panahi has made what feels like his freest film since the ban was imposed, if also his most elusive, earning a best screenplay prize at Cannes that should lend the film an added profile in its travels.
Godard said all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun; all Panahi needs is a girl and a noose. “3 Faces” opens with arresting selfie smartphone footage of a young woman, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) apparently driven to suicide by her family’s prohibition against her becoming an actress. Her plaintive appeal is addressed to the successful Mrs. Jafari (well-known Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari, like all the main cast playing a version of herself), and it reaches her via her director friend, Jafar Panahi. Behnaz pivots between agony at the idea that her neglect may have contributed to the girl’s suicide, and a deep suspicion that the footage has been faked and the whole situation is an elaborate ruse. She and Panahi set off for the girl’s remote, Turkish-Azeri-speaking home village to investigate.
That drama could easily power a different film through to its conclusion. But Panahi abruptly “solves” the mystery halfway through, as though cutting the film’s motor, the better to allow the narrative’s looser, more allusive undercurrents to steer it where they will. On their road trip the famous actress and the famous dissident director have several pointedly odd encounters that unfold with almost folk-mythology whimsy. An old woman settles herself into her pre-dug grave, equipping it with a lamp to keep away the snakes who’ll come for her “for the bad I’ve done.” A villager insists Behnaz take tea with him (the famous Iranian hospitality is often depicted less as friendliness and more as yet another unwritten but rigidly enforced ritual), and hands her a small sackcloth containing his adult son’s infant foreskin as a talisman. A large bull with a broken leg blocks a narrow mountain road while its owner explains he cannot destroy it because it is the “bull with the golden balls,” a stud animal who once impregnated 10 cows in a single night. In the moment, these incidents feel like gentle sidetracks, like Panahi observing the quirks of his parents’ home region with a mixture of affection and exasperation. But cumulatively they create the backdrop of pervasive patriarchy and small-town small-mindedness against which the main story can unfold.
That story, it gradually emerges, is of three women, all actresses: Marziyeh, Behnaz, and a third, older woman, Shahrazade, who lives as a recluse having been ostracized following years of mistreatment by male directors. There is a deep eloquence in calling your film “3 Faces” and keeping one of those faces invisible, but that’s what Panahi does here: We never see Shahrazade, and so she becomes almost mythically emblematic of the injustices and double standards that Iranian actresses labor under, when they can be revered as celebrities and castigated as morally corrupt almost in the same breath.
Panahi’s own role is markedly less central than in his last three films. Mostly he is the silent observer, with leisurely, Kiarostami-esque long takes, often showing a character’s full journey to the camera from a far-off pathway, contributing to the film’s meditative, pensive rhythm. It makes “3 Faces” less punchily playful than “Taxi,” but more moving and ultimately more valuable. This is Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker with more cause than most to feel victimized, turning a deeply respectful, artful and compassionate eye outward, to the struggles of others, and finding such empathy there that the film amounts to a heartfelt statement of solidarity. He is perhaps becoming resigned to his bondage, even as he’s becoming more adept at working around it, but with “3 Faces,” the caged Panahi is determined to sing someone else’s song, and in times like these, such generosity of spirit is its own quietly fierce act of cinematic defiance.