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Review: "3 Faces," a humanist drama of female power in Iran

The captivating Iranian drama "3 Faces" opens with a shocking video that may or may not depict a young girl's suicide in a remote mountain village. In a brief clip recorded on a smartphone and addressed to a prominent actress, an emotional teenager, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), explains that her life is being stifled by her family who are rejecting her desire to become an actress herself. The video ends with her apparent hanging. But is it real, or a performance – an audition, as it were?

The celebrity who receives the video, Behnaz Jafari (played by actress Behnaz Jafari), is understandably upset by the suggested death of the girl, but calls to local authorities to confirm the video's authenticity are fruitless. Jafari therefore resigns herself to traveling to the village to find out if the girl is really dead and, if so, why she took her own life.

But after trekking to the desert town near the Turkish border, Jafari is imbued with disbelief when the village shows no signs of death or mourning. Yet the mere mention of Marziyeh's name draws recriminations from the townsfolk, and Marziyeh's brother, a boiling tea kettle of anger, rages that the girl would bring dishonor to her family by becoming an "entertainer."

Behnaz Jafari and Jafar Panahi in Panahi's "3 Faces." Kino Lorber

This is the latest humanist drama from Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi, who has come under fire from the government over his realistic portrayals of contemporary Iranian life. Acclaimed for such works as "The White Balloon" and "The Mirror," Jafari has been banned by the fundamentalists in power from making films and from traveling abroad (he has not been able to attend international film festivals); for several years he was kept under house arrest. But that has not prevented him from directing films under their nose.

In 2011 he released a documentary/video diary, "This Is Not a Film," shot in his home on an iPhone and smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake, to receive a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. He followed up with "Taxi," in which he drove around Tehran interacting with his passengers discussing life in Iran today; and "Closed Curtain," a meditation on freedom in which Panahi appears as a filmmaker named Jafar Panahi.

In "3 Faces," Panahi again plays a version of himself, a film director not directing films (he explains to his mother on a phone call that no, he isn't working right now), but whose identity is known to everyone, even those in the most isolated of villages, where there are more satellite dishes than people. Panahi serves as a driver for Jafari in what is in essence a road movie, observing the locals with the bemused air of an urbanite, gracious for the hospitality but remaining at a cautious arm's-length. Panahi and Jaferi's exploration of the town, whose buildings look older than rocks, uncovers superstitions and traditions that appear, to an outsider, as a terrible burden, but which serve the purpose of preserving an ancient social order. Their discovery of the truth behind Marziyeh's video triggers first explosive anger, and then an empathetic outpouring of compassion.

The movie was inspired by news reports of a video message of a young girl who'd killed herself because her family prevented her from becoming an actress, and led Panahi to question how he would respond to receiving such a message himself. By focusing his story on three women – Jafari, Marziyeh and Shahrzad (a former actress and dancer who'd been persecuted following the 1979 revolution and who here lives a quiet life of exile in the village), Panahi's film evokes the loss of, and pursuit of, freedom – not his own owing to the government crackdown affecting his career, but about women whose freedom is subjugated by a patriarchal society, where archaic superstitions about male prowess are followed, and women are diminished at the whims of male family members protecting "honor" above all.

The movie was filmed in the villages in which Panahi's parents and grandparents were raised, in northwest Iran.  With cameras mounted inside the car providing the audience glimpses of landscapes and villagers, we see an agrarian community operating under its own closely-held customs, hospitality and rules (including a complicated honking of horns that determines right-of-way on the narrow, single-lane dirt road that hugs a ravine).

Winner of the Best Screenplay Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "3 Faces" shows that rejecting more efficient ways of dealing with the hardships and demands of life (like, how about widening a roadway?) may be as much on account of laziness as protecting the status quo, but the mindset needed to fight outdated and narrow-minded modes of thinking takes extreme efforts, to combat the opposition – something that's difficult even when the government isn't tying your hands. Panahi's optimistic message is that, in spite of the cards being stacked against you, the journey can end with a signal of hope, even as the fallout of uncontained anger is evident right in front of the camera lens.  

"3 Faces" (distributed by Kino Lorber) opens this weekend in New York City and at the Portland International Film Festival, and expands to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Columbus, Detroit, Pittsburgh and other cities throughout the month. In Farsi and Turkish with English subtitles. Not rated. 100 mins.

To view a trailer for "3 Faces" click on the video player below.

3 Faces – Official U.S. Trailer by kinolorber on YouTube
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