In “Tale of the Sea,” the drama of lyrical despair that’s the opening-night film of the 1st Iranian Film Festival New York, the venerable Iranian filmmaker Bahman Farmanara (“Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine”), who wrote and directed the movie and also stars in it, plays Taher, an esteemed novelist who has just spent three years in a mental institution. Farmanara, now in his mid-70s, has a hangdog scowl, small burning eyes, and a jowly fleshy severity that makes him look like a literary-lion version of Charles Laughton. You wouldn’t exactly say his face lights up with feeling, but that doesn’t mean he’s not expressing anything. He has a world-weariness that tips into tenderness, and the silent haunted demeanor of someone who has grown used to seeing ghosts.
Taher is known to his acolytes as “Maestro,” and that word speaks volumes about his changing place in society. Thirty years ago, it would just have meant: He’s a maestro of a writer. But what we hear now is the entitlement embedded in that word, the suggestion that an artist who people call “Maestro” might tend to get lost in his own self-image. The new book he’s writing, on his small old manual typewriter, is called “Conversations with Madness,” and that might just be a highfalutin way of saying: conversations with himself.
Taher, by any standard, is a man in trouble. He was hospitalized for depression, with stray symptoms of schizophrenia. Wandering outside his home by the sea, he runs into an old friend (Ali Nassirian) and enjoys a pleasant, intimate conversation with him; moments later, we learn that the friend died 17 years ago. And Taher has a home life that has turned toxic. For 35 years, he has been married to the gentle, circumspect Jaleh (Fatemeh Motamed Arya), and she, in her passive way, has been his rock. But she has come to hate making room for his titanic self-regard. After three years of breathing free without him, she wants a divorce. And that’s before Parvenah (Leila Hatami), the daughter of her old friend, shows up, looking like Isabella Rossellini in a head scarf, and makes a bombshell announcement.
The depression, the demons, the delusion, the marital clash: “Tale of the Sea” mines territory that was once the province of Ingmar Bergman. Yet Bergman’s searing movies sliced right to the bone of personal pain; they caught something about Sweden but were always, front and center, about Ingmar Bergman. “Tale of the Sea” is a movie that screams without raising its voice — it’s essentially a calm chain of dialogues — and that eloquent quietude speaks to what’s going on in a broader way: as the expression of an interior national convulsion. It’s not so much that the film is a social-political allegory, as any number of Iranian films have been, as that it’s channeling the spirit of the end of something: the end of a certain kind of marriage, a certain kind of artist, a way of looking at artists, a way of being. One of Taher’s former students, Amir (Saber Abar), shows up and turns into the film’s representative of a generation cut off from a future.
There was a moment, in the late ’70s and early ’80s (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Shoot the Moon”), when American movies broached the subject of divorce and took the pulse of what it was coming to mean to our society. That’s now mostly moved over to the arena of television, but the specter of marital breakdown has become an essential facet of Iranian cinema, and “Tale of the Sea,” in its portrayal of the inchoate resentment of a character like Jahel, captures how the changing face of women has created a slow-building earthquake. Fatemeh Motamed Arya’s performance is at once furious and exacting — her Jaleh looks at Taher with a warmth that can freeze into a terrifying gaze of contempt. Yet it’s still a gaze too subtle for him to see.
“Tale of the Sea” is an elegy perched on the edge of an abyss. The film’s seaside settings are lushly shot, and Peyman Yazdanian’s score has a surprising romantic melancholy. The movie takes in a writer like Taher — and, by implication, his dying-out generation of artists — and says that this is an aspect of what Iran was, and will no longer be. But the movie is really asking, with a touch of dread: What’s coming next?