Viewing Diary: Brick and Mirror (1965, Ebrahim Golestan)

Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1965)

Ebrahim Golestan

Ebrahim Golestan. The name may not be that familiar to many, but he can legitimately be called the godfather of the Iranian New Wave. No Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and all those others who later made Iranian cinema one of the most artistically exciting, without first passing via Golestan. (Shameless but not altogether irrelevant plug: those wishing to learn more about the Iranian New Wave can read my series of posts about it, starting from here.)

Born in 1922, into a comfortable upper-middle class existence in Southern Iran, Golestan found his place as an influential intellectual and writer of short stories in the 1940s. Somewhat of a polymath, he was also a photographer and fascinated by the potential of his other passion, film-making. Possessing the means and advantageous connections, in 1956 he created his own film production company. In 1958, he made the short documentary A Fire, his first film. Its lyrical, visually-oriented approach to its subject of an oilfield fire makes it a precedent to Werner Herzog’s fascination with such flames in his Kuwait doc, Lessons in Darkness (1992). By the early 1960s, Golestan’s early shorts have captured attention (and prizes) at the Venice Film Festival, becoming the first internationally acclaimed Iranian films. The nascent artistic conscience of Iranian cinema was being formed by Golestan.

Forough Farrokhzad

Just as seminal as his own shorts, if not more so, is a mesmerising 30-minutes long film he produced and collaborated on: Forough Farrokhzad‘s The House is Black (1963). This unflinching documentary depicts a leper colony through the taboo-defying gaze of Farrokhzad, one of the greatest Iranian poets of the 20th century. It was a blueprint to the future Kiarostamis, and it’s hard to imagine his masterful Koker-set films without this masterpiece having been made.

Farrokhzad also happened to be Golestan’s lover, to much rumour and scandal within Iran. Tragically she would lose her life in a car accident in 1967, aged just 32, and The House is Black was her only incursion into film-making. Today, she is best remembered for her sensuous poetry but her impact on Iranian cinema, both with her own film and through her influence on Golestan, should not be overlooked.

In 1963, Golestan decided to start work on his first fictional film, a logical step for such a prolific writer of short fiction. That film would be Brick and Mirror, based on his own screenplay, and which I watched for the first time a few weeks ago. It was the first serious attempt at a feature-length art film in Iranian cinema (as opposed to the tired formulaic melodramas and so on), but its worthiness goes far beyond its inaugural status. It could sit alongside the canonised arthouse masterpieces of the 1960s, had its geographical and industrial constraints not banished it to relative oblivion.

Brick and Mirror begins as the story of Hashem, a Tehran taxi driver, and average guy, maybe of around 30, set to be put in an unusual situation. Driving for fares one night in the city — vividly evoked through shots of the neon-lit streets and the rhythms of its hustle and bustle — Hashem finds a baby abandoned in the back of his cab. Attempting to track down the runaway passenger, his chase ends with him lost in an eery, dissipated house, where a peculiar woman greets him with inexplicable, mad mutterings. This ghostly house sequence, rendered through expressionistic lighting and fragmented editing, could be right out of some atmospheric horror film. Hashem, baby still in his arms, is left perplexed and makes way to a Tehran bar, his regular night-time hangout.

Brick and Mirror follows an episodic approach, each new scene veering it towards a different mood and register, all accomplished by Golestan with technical assurance and confidence.  After Hashem’s cab on the streets, and the creepy house, next we enter the bar with Hashem. The frame is now packed with people, all chatty, eccentric characters. The camera tracks deftly around enclosed spaces, conveying a lively ambience similar to Scorsese bar-rooms out of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. It’s a brilliantly evocative scene. We feel present in this room where all types of Tehran’s dwellers meet, be they taxi drivers, intellectuals, drunkards, gamblers. All are eager to give their opinion on what course of action Hashem should take. Some tell him to head to the police station, others maintain the baby can only be a trap laid by a would-be accuser who’ll frame him for kidnap. This whirlpool of dissonant voices leaves Hashem even more confused.

Later, the film takes another turn with its second, more personal, half. Hashem’s relationship with his lover Taji, whom we’d briefly met in the bar scene, takes centre stage. The lengthy central scene, entirely set in Hashem’s apartment, depicts the couple deliberating over what to do, while also attempting to rekindle their intimacy. She, full of doubts about her future with this man who refuses to commit, sees the baby as a potential symbol of a new start for them. She becomes desperate to keep it. Hashem though, is consumed by the paranoia endemic in Golestan’s portrayal of Iran under the dictatorial Shah — already hinted at through the distrust of the police. Hashem is terrified of even leaving the lights on, lest one of the neighbours spy on him. The reasons for his paranoia are never articulated, which imparts a Kafkaesque flavour on proceedings. Previously our straight-man guide into a strange world, Hashem grows increasingly stubborn and obnoxious, his paranoia preventing him enjoying a moment of tenderness with the woman who clearly loves him.

It slowly looms upon us that the film is not heading for the glimmer of hope Taji believes the baby to be, but towards a breakdown, suggesting the impossibility of a future within a broken society that reflects the insanity of its dictator. These moments of failed intimacy and mis-communication between Hashem and Taji are not far removed from similar scenes in the ’60s work of Antonioni and Bergman — I keep using European references only because Golestan was such an avowed Europhile in his artistic influences. But I believe we can also perceive Farrokhzad’s indirect influence. Golestan’s affair with the great poetess, still ongoing at the time, is bound to have had some impact on his artistic mindset when writing and filming Brick and Mirror.

Farrokhzad herself was deeply personal and candid in her art. Having married young in a patriarchal society, she later felt forced to divorce her husband in order to emancipate herself as a woman and poet. However this meant abandoning her young son in the care of his father. The resulting guilt of this choice is something Farrokhzad wrote about several times in her verses, some even directly addressing her estranged son, begging for him to one day forgive and understand her. It’s hard not to be reminded of Farrokhzad’s attempts at soothing the pain of her own sacrifice by the motif of the lost baby here, and Taji’s primal desperation to keep it. Taking the thought further, the scenes between Taji and Hashem, who like Golestan and Farrokhzad are unmarried and seem to have something to hide, may even draw something from Golestan’s experiences, but this is a bit too speculative.

The Brick and the Mirror-004

In any case, the emotional torment between Taji and Hashem reaches its raw climax in the final act. Tellingly, at this point the film hands over to Taji. It is her who leads us into the orphanage where it ends. Shot in a real orphanage, and punctuated by slow tracking-shots of young orphans rattling on their metal cribs and close-ups of their faces, the scene is almost wordless and brings Brick and Mirror to a slow, haunting halt. It recalls both The House is Black, and, to use another comparison to European masters, the early essay-films of Resnais and Marker. Through this sombre, solemn atmosphere, Taji understands this baby is not a miraculous saviour for her relationship, and that all these dozens of abandoned babies are just as lonely, helpless and in need of a saviour as she. This realisation is perhaps what explains the film’s title, taken from a line attributed to the Sufi poet Attar: “What the old can see in a mud brick, youth can see in a mirror”. Taji has gathered enough experience to see the bitter truth in a figurative ‘mud brick’.

Golestan would only direct one more feature after Brick and Mirror: a satire symbolically critiquing the Shah, The Ghost Valley’s Treasure Mysteries (1974), based on his own novel. He moved to England in the 1970s, where he still resides today, now in his nineties. The tangible shadow he cast on the subsequent development of Iranian cinema consists almost entirely of this one film then, in which he founded a type of visual language and artistic excellence to be matched. Brick and Mirror blends naturalistic with intimate, along with a fair dose of surreal (the madwoman of the start, an odd charlatan Hashem encounters whom he later sees on TV). It feels related to the contemporaneous French New Wave and the Italian Modernists while still firmly anchored in an Iranian context. How many more films like this, which should indisputably belong to the canon of world cinema, are lost and forgotten today I wonder?