Director: Jafar Panahi
Stars: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei
Its indicative of the splendid humour of Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces that, come the final shot of the film, the titular visages could be those of three cows riding in a procession of trucks, snaking through the dirt roads of northwest Iran. Something so delightful, so throwaway, so playful.
Looking at the film more directly, it is clearly not the three cows. Panahi’s film follows in the great tradition of Iranian New Wave masters Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf; preoccupied with the interiors of cars, rural farce, and the flagrant blurring of truth and fiction. Panahi’s own work has, of course, played heavily in these waters. He’s his country’s great renegade – making award-winning films even after having been banned from doing so for 20 years.
Here Panahi plays himself, escorting famed Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari (herself) on an emergency road trip out of Tehran and into the remote hillsides. Jafari is evidently compromising a film shoot in order to go on this adventure. Their ‘mission’ is laid out in the film’s bravura opening, in which a village girl – Marziyeh Rezaei (herself) – films her own (successful?) suicide attempt on her cellphone; an act of frustration and defiance. Marziyeh has been accepted to a prestigious university for the arts but her family, ashamed of her vocation, forbid her attendance. The video is addressed to Jafari and she is compelled to act.
Travelling day and night they arrive in the remote village only to find themselves beset by comic episodes that also serve to underscore the myriad customs still alive in the area; some seeded in superstition, others in the fear of allowing women their own destinies. Panahi fondly ridicules the former while drawing our sober attention to the latter. It’s a delicate balance but one he pulls off well.
We learn that in this village lives a former actress from the days before the Islamic Revolution. Shunned from the entertainment industry, she now lives in partially self-imposed exile and won’t even appear on camera. Hers is the missing face in the trio alluded to in Panahi’s title. 3 Faces presents us three actors; one desperate to start her career, one in the midst of success, and one expelled from the other end. Though we only particularly spend time in the company of one of those three – Jafari and her shock of red hair and celebrity sunglasses – the film feels as though it exists outside of time. In a way, all three are parts of a composite whole that we are invited to piece together in our minds. Bound together in this way they represent a journey that begins in struggle and ends in betrayal.
There are a number of absurd asides in 3 Faces that become little mysteries of their own, and not all are answered. What becomes of an injured bull? Or, for that matter the surprising contents of a small bundle passed to Jafari and then Panahi for safe-keeping? And what of young Marziyeh, who for a majority of the picture exists only as a phantom; a Hitchcockian MacGuffin of sorts.
Panahi keeps things playful, as much in his (award-winning) screenplay as he does with his impressive technical choices. The cut from Marziyeh’s rough cameraphone video to Panahi’s wider, more giving lenses is startling enough, but even more impressive is the extended opening take of the film proper, which covers several minutes and 360 degrees within the car. There’s intelligence, wit and precise choreography to Panahi’s work which goes far beyond the guerrilla-filmmaking aesthetics one might have assumed such a renegade would adopt. This is indicative of the charged creativity in Iranian New Wave cinema.
The meandering nature of the latter half of the film might test some, but I found too many delights to ever become bored or restless. 3 Faces teeters on the brink of patronising its rural characters, but they jovially get to make their own potshots at Panahi, albeit at his own behest. And once over, the film continues to give, either as little curiosities return to tickle, or through its southpaw significance. This may seem like an odd juxtaposition, but it’s rather like a Lambchop album; pretty and serene on the surface, but knotted with little kernels of interest the more you persist.
Jafar Panahi smiles into his own camera so sweetly, you almost forget he’s put a stone in your shoe.