Whenever confronted with a wide array of choices for foreign films, I generally leap at any Iranian offerings. Abbas Kiaroastami has spearheaded a new wave style of Iranian cinema—profound minimalist slices of everyday life,shot in neo-realistic style. That's what I did recently with only a short window to check out a film at the Portland International Film Festival last weekend, and again when Facets Video had a number of newly available DVD releases. Both were winners—similar in contemporary economic realities of Tehran with husbands losing their jobs and seeking new means of survival; however, Majid Majidi's Song of Sparrows (2008) feels like a comfortable old shoe like his earlier films (Children of Heaven, The Color of Paradise, Baran) while Rafi Pitts' 2006 It's Winter (Zemestan) breaks new ground.
Shot in the industrial outskirts of Tehran, Pitts' melancholy film paints a wintry portrait of life, largely devoid of joy. Middle aged husband/father Mokhar (Ali Nicksaulat) has just lost his job. Though largely silent, Mokhar initially blames his wife Khatoun (Mitra Hajjar) for building their small house instead of investing the money; now he must travel abroad in the dead of winter to search for work. No tender farewells are expressed; in fact, the only sign that there may have ever been affection between the couple in the past is their young daughter.
Enter the second plot. Heavy equipment mechanic Marhab (Hashem Abdi) arrives in the area, seeking a job but finds that strangers are unlikely to find either suitable housing or employment here. Contrasting with Mokhar, the younger Marhab is more verbose and aggressive. After befriending handsome young mechanic Ali Reza (Said Orkani), Marhab gets hired as an apprentice, but this has no future.
We're never sold on Marhab's mechanical skills for one thing. He talks about how he can repair large cranes, yet screws up small engines and can only complain about how the world treats him (though we can sympathize that his new boss hasn't paid him anything over two months). From what he says about his parents, we can infer that Marhab habitually screws up long term relationships as well.
He spots Khatoun in the streets and begins stalking her with designs of marrying her. Given the homoeroticism expressed with Ali Reza, this development is surprising; it's an area left ambiguous that can be among post-mortem discussion points. Marhab eventually damages this friendship by demanding money that he uses for a dowry. More plot twists arise that demonstrate the conflict between desire for home and economic reality, but Pitts remains faithful to his barrenness and emptiness themes. Anything outside a tragic ending would be false.
Yet not all hope is lost. That house that first husband Mokhar severely criticized remains in the final frame as fresh snowflakes continuously fall on it—an effective image for Pitts' simple and thought-provoking cinematic poem.