Director: Panah Panahi
Stars: Pantea Panahiha, Hasan Ma’juni, Rayan Sarlak
Tensions of freedom and enclosure persist throughout Panah Panahi’s assured feature debut Hit the Road. Ostensibly a road movie, it follows in a long and great Iranian tradition of films set in and around a car, recalling masterworks by both the great Abbas Kiarostami (too numerous to count) and Panahi’s own father, Jafar Panahi. Indeed, his father’s recent incarceration lightly haunts contemporary viewings of Hit the Road, which debuted at Cannes last year. Freedom and enclosure feel like themes perhaps more pressing than intended, but they are here nonetheless.
The journey has already begun when we join the nameless family on the road to nowhere in a borrowed car. The father (Hasan Ma’juni) has his right leg and foot in a cast, immobilising him in the backseat (he’s the very definition of a backseat driver). There he struggles to reign in the boundless energy of his youngest son (an irrepressible Rayan Sarlak). Up front sits his wife and matriarch (a superb turn from Pantea Panahiha), while their eldest son (a monosyllabic Amin Simiar) takes driving duties. Nipping about the car, also, is a sickly pooch named Jessy.
Where are they going? Where have they come from? What is the purpose of their trip? It’s all enticingly vague (perhaps frustratingly so, for some). Throughout we feel a sense of mischief, lies and misdirection. Cell phones are mysteriously forbidden on this trip, but two members of this party are concealing such devices. There’s talk of marriage, but also the sense of a potential hostage situation, or illegal border crossing. Panahi keeps the family’s true intentions shrouded.
Because of this coyness, the viewer is invited to imprint their own explanation. From the humdrum to the fantastical (on one occasion the boy exclaims that they’re dead – could they be?). Panahi even encourages us. One restful scene between the father and his youngest son literally transports the two of them into the infinite, prefigured by the elder son’s reverential monologue on the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey which occurs much earlier in the picture. And, let’s not forget, the film materialises out of featureless white, as though arising out of a cloud. Something extraordinary at our fingertips, but also just out of reach.
With their purpose elusive, the journey becomes the focal point for our edification and entertainment. This family don’t seem to like each other particularly, and spend much of the time bickering, if not outright insulting one another. In one sequence the family effectively runs over a cyclist competing in a race of sorts. The injured(?) man accepts a lift and speaks of his hero, Lance Armstrong. When the father itemises Armstrong’s deceptions, the cyclist’s own integrity comes into silent question. One of the film’s slyest jokes comes out of this sequence and Panahi is brave enough to leave it unaddressed, confident in his audience’s ability to pick it up themselves.
This sense of assurance is felt across the picture as a whole. Kiarostami’s work is conjured not just in the framework of driving, but in the comedy eked out of slowly unfurling farce, repetition and doubling back. This viewer spotted more than one zigzag frame, suggestive of lightly feathered references to the Iranian master.
More cinematic auteurs sprang to mind in one simple sequence in which the mother, enjoying a precious moment alone, is stroked – almost comforted – by the swaying branches of a bush. Both D. W. Griffith and David Lynch spoke poetically about cinema being “the wind in the trees”. This small scene echoes such sentiments, and Panahi makes room in his picture for tranquil moments that conjure something absurd or poignant. One of the film’s most memorable images is of a red plastic chair tumbling along a horizon line. It won’t be until a few scenes later that this incongruous image is explained, but even by itself it has a strange absurdist beauty. A world off-kilter.
Occasionally the deliberate lack of specificity grows tiresome. A circular conversation between the father and the eldest son that takes place on a rocky outcrop in the middle of a river struggles to sustain itself, and pushes the limits of patience. One yearns, at such times, for greater context. But Panahi’s decision not to pander is ultimately the right one, and the film lives longer in the mind because of it. One might accuse this skirting sensibility as pretentious, but there’s little arguing that Hit the Road evidences an adept new voice in Iranian cinema, one reverent of those who came before him, but also eager to stake out a claim to the future.