Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Mirror (1997)

[This is a contribution to the Iranian Film Blogathon hosted by The Sheila Variations. The blogathon is inspired by imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, and focuses on both his own films and those of other important Iranian directors. The blogathon will run from February 21-27, so check out all the related posts at Sheila's blog during this week.]

The Mirror uses a clever conceptual device as a way to observe, in pseudo-documentary fashion, the day-to-day rhythms of life in the city of Tehran. For the first half of the film, a young girl (Mina Mohammad Khani) tries to find her way home after her mother fails to pick her up after school. The girl gets a ride from a friendly stranger who calls himself the General, until his motorcycle gets smashed in an accident. Then she gets rides in various buses, seemingly picking them at random, hoping that they'll get her home. As she rides, she listens in on various conversations going on around her, and the film provides a glimpse into the lives of the ordinary people of the city, capturing attitudes in flux and the small complaints and pleasures of everyday life. Then, halfway through the film, the girl suddenly turns to the camera and says, "I'm not acting anymore," rips off her fake cast and the coat she'd been wearing, and storms off the bus, refusing to take part in the film anymore. After a hesitant interlude in which the film crew, including director Jafar Panahi, try to decide how to deal with their young star's sudden bout of anger, Panahi decides to continue following Mina anyway. As a result, the second half of the film mirrors the first, as the film crew follows Mina as she continues to try to find her way home — supposedly to the actress' real home now.

The film's structure calls attention to the continuity between fiction and reality, as the staged scenes of the early part of the film are mirrored by the supposedly "real" scenes of the latter half (even though it's doubtful that anything in the film is actually unscripted). Both halves of the film concern a girl trying to get home, lost in the city, and Mina's character — stubborn, independent, wise in her childish way — hardly changes when she says she's going to stop acting. At one point, in the second half of the film, Mina meets an old woman who had been on a bus with her earlier, talking about her uncaring children and her feeling that her life is miserable. Mina sits with the woman and finds out that she hadn't been acting earlier, that though she'd been paid to be in the film, everything she'd said had been a description of her actual life and her actual feelings. Later in the film, someone who'd been watching the filming compliments Mina on her acting but especially singles out for a praise a scene where, supposedly, she hadn't been acting, a scene after she broke character and quit the film. The line between fiction and reality is blurry here, and it seems to be Panahi's assertion that, in both fiction and documentary, artists are attempting to capture the essence of reality, and in that sense it hardly matters if something is factual as long as it's true to the emotional and social reality that the camera captures. And in spite of the metafictional gimmick at the heart of the film, it's obvious that The Mirror is true to reality, that Panahi is trying to present a portrait of life in the city with all its complexity.

One interesting aspect of this portrait is the emphasis on the role of women. During a cab ride towards the end of the film, the driver and some passengers debate the roles of men and women in a society where tradition remains ingrained even as a few changes are beginning to shake things up. A woman in the cab passionately argues that women shouldn't be slaves to their husbands, that it's not the woman's duty to be a maid or a housekeeper, and that men should help out their wives. The driver and another man argue against her, trying to maintain that men earn the money while women should stay at home and keep the house in order. But as the woman points out, this strict division of labor is no longer always true, as women begin to work outside of the home, too — a situation that calls into question the codification of the man as the worker and the woman as the child-rearer and housekeeper. This exchange suggests a society in flux, a society where new situations and new values are threatening the traditional understanding of men and women. This open, honest exchange is juxtaposed against the buses, where men and women are segregated from one another in separate sections, with one of the film's most charming moments being Mina's observation of the shy, sweet smiles exchanged between a young man and a young woman, separated from one another across the bus but connecting anyway with their glances.

The subtext of the film is rebellion against what's expected. Mina rebels against the film crew, against the instructions of her male director — and Panahi continually inserts little jokes at his own expense, to undermine his authority as director. Mina is a fiercely independent young girl, in both incarnations of her character. She is occasionally helped along in her long odyssey home, but more often she resists the condescending help of the adults around her. She wants to find her own way, even though she's hopelessly lost and doesn't know the names of any streets, only being able to navigate by her memory of certain landmarks. Though dwarfed by her surroundings — she has to clamber up the wall of a phone booth to put her coin into the phone's slot before making a call — and obviously overwhelmed by the rushing traffic and chaotic crowds that surround her everywhere in the city, she tries to contain her fear. She asks many people for help, but she wants only limited assistance. She doesn't want to be delivered anywhere, she just wants directions and then she can go running off, her head down, her little feet pumping rapidly as she runs with a sense of purpose even when she has no real idea where she's going. The patter of her feet on pavement, captured by the microphone that the film crew leaves on her when they follow the rebelling young actress, is a recurring sound on the soundtrack, even when Mina herself dodges out of view behind traffic or gets lost in the crowds on the sidewalk.

More than anything else, the film is about the frenetic energy of Tehran, packed with cars and bikes and pedestrians, a dangerous and active city where frequent accidents — at one point a smashed car is lifted out of the center of a traffic jam with a crane — only add to the confusion. The people Mina meets on her journey home are often interesting in their own right, with their own stories and their own concerns, from the General's anxiety about his relatives' fashion choices at his son's wedding (he seems to think that their old-fashioned style will embarrass him) to the musician who used to earn his living by dubbing the voice of John Wayne in imported American films. Although overt commentary is impossible, Panahi seems to be implicitly examining the state of modern Iran, suggesting submerged clashes between modernity and tradition, between homegrown and outside influences.

Panahi, who was recently arrested by the Iranian government and effectively banned from making films, uses his unassuming pseudo-documentary style to consider the changing roles of women in this traditionalist country. The film is utterly apolitical on its surface, and yet at the same time it is unquestionably a film with a real social consciousness, an alertness to the ways in which ordinary people live their lives, the pressures they face from the intersections of religion, tradition and more modern influences. Mina, though she wears the head-scarf and clothes of a traditional woman or girl, seems like a thoroughly modern woman in terms of attitude: self-sufficient, bold, reluctant to bow to the demands of her elders. Panahi, from behind the camera, displays the same traits, the same determination, and if he is truly prevented from making any more films by the Iranian government, it will be a great loss, not only to the Iranian people — who need an artist this sensitive, this perceptive, this creative — but to the entire world.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Ed, you really capture the energy of this film. I haven't seen it in a while, and now I really have to see it again.

Thank you so much for participating!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sheila, I'm so glad you're doing this blogathon, as it pushed me to finally check out some of Panahi's work. It's a rich and very original film. I know this blogathon will do a small part to spread some more awareness of Panahi's plight, and I'm glad to participate.

DavidEhrenstein said...

This lovely gentle work is what the Iranian dictators want to stamp out -- and with it the man who made it.

However events are conspriing to alter the middle east once and for all in quite unexpected ways -- to the benefit of Panahi and everyone else.

Sam Juliano said...

This beautiful work stands as one of the greatest of Iranian films, surely as artistic and resonant as a number of Kiarostami works. This virtually plotless film captures the anxiety and confusion of a young child, whose movement within these parameters allow the audience to see life in Tehran on a typical day. Indeed you say as much in your opening sentence:

"The Mirror uses a clever conceptual device as a way to observe, in pseudo-documentary fashion, the day-to-day rhythms of life in the city of Tehran..."

Anyway, your subsequent discussion of the role of women, fiction and reality and rebellion are not only integral to any discussion of Panahi's work, but also to Iranian cinema in general, and you've hit the bulls-eye on each count. This may well be my favorite Panahi, though CRIMSON GOLD and THE WHITE BALLOON are just about as great.

From the noir fundraising blogothon to the Iranian cinema blogothon, you are a man on a mission Ed. Your tireless and singularly prolific high-quality work in both forums here is something to behold. Kudos to you.

Ed Howard said...

David, I hope things in the Middle East turn out as well as you're suggesting. The region has definitely seen, of late, some of the most hopeful events to shake it up in quite some time.

Sam, this was a great introduction for me to Panahi, and I'll definitely be exploring more of his work, and more of Iranian cinema in general. It's an area I know woefully little about, though you and Allan did introduce me to The House Is Black a while ago, and that's another great film of course. I wish I'd had more notice for this blogathon, I would've tried to get together some more posts for the week, but as it is this will have to stand as my one contribution, and we'll be back to the regularly scheduled non-blogathon reviews tomorrow.

DavidEhrenstein said...

George Soros was on CNN the other night. He's very familair with everythign going on over there and he says the Iranian regime is on its last legs.