Over 41 years ago, the nation of Iran underwent a seismic shift. The Iranian Revolution marked the downfall of the despotic corrupt regime of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and Iran’s transition from secular dictactorship to fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship. Under the watchful eye of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian cinema was expected to suffocate a slow death, and yet unexpectedly it rose out of the ashes of the Revolution to become what, by the 1990s, was an internationally celebrated national cinema: the so-called New Iranian Cinema. But before the New Iranian Cinema, there was a perfectly good old Iranian cinema too…
In fact, Iran had a new wave of its own in the late 1960s and early 1970s, making great and often critical films right under the nose of the Shah and his oppressive regime’s unequal march towards so-called modernisation. Some of the major names of the New Iranian Cinema (Kiarostami or Naderi for example) were already active in this period, which despite the radical rupture represented by the Revolution still left some threads for later Iranian cinema to pick up (I hope to revisit these in a future list of must-see post-1979 Iranian films). Yet the pre-Revolution Iranian cinema remains largely unknown in the west, and in this latest list I propose some discoveries for the adventurous cinephile to begin filling this gap. I’ve chosen 10 films, all made before the Iranian Revolution, and by 10 different fillmmakers. Where possible, I’ve added free links to watch these films, so you can have your very own classic Iranian cinema season.
The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1962)
Forough Farrokhzad stands as one of the great feminist poets anywhere in the 20th century. She had already published three volumes by the time the producer and filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan offered her the chance to direct a documentary short. The subject was a leper colony in northwestern Iran. The result was a marvel of documentary filmmaking distilled through her poetic sensibility for words (through the voiceover) and command of rhythm (in the editing of the images she captured).
In just over 20 minutes of duration, Farrokhzad offers us a new way of looking. Gently the camera glides over the daily lives of the colony’s residents without any sense of taboos being broken, with neither voyeurism nor sentimentality but in harmonious union with the people onscreen, while on the soundtrack her voice reads verses which poetically interrogate the divine. She related so naturally to these neglected, cast-off human beings because she herself felt so deeply what it was like to be a pariah, socially stigmatised as a ‘promiscuous’ woman — her poetry is haunted by her marks of shame and her guilt at being forced to leave behind her son when divorcing his father. It is easy to imagine her own pain at not being able to see this son inspiring her empathetic tender gaze on the leper schoolchildren. She would adopt one of the young boys she met at the colony, but five years later she was tragically killed in a car accident, aged just 32.
Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1965)
Alongside the films of director Farrokh Gaffary, which I’ve not yet been able to track down, this debut feature by Ebrahim Golestan (which I already wrote about in more detail here) stands as the first attempt at art cinema in Iran. And despite few people knowing about it, it easily deserves a place alongside the best modernist and existentialist of Sixties world cinema. The main protagonist is Hashem, a taxi driver whose life is turned upside down after picking up a woman who leaves a baby in the back of his cab and vanishes without a trace. The film follows him for about 24 hours, as he confusedly attempts to search for the missing mother, then seeks help from friends, from the police, from his girlfriend Taji, but no clear answers are forthcoming. Recently restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, Brick and Mirror is a revelation in high definition, which makes it feel like seeing a new film: the neon lights of the big city blinking through the pitch black darkness, the atmosphere of the night-time bars, the sudden bursts of fragmented editing, the tracking shots through the orphanage, and even the tonal shifts can all be more fully appreciated. Golestan all but gave up filmmaking after the Revolution, but he left us a unique masterpiece of paranoia, fear, responsibility and human existence.
Available to watch (unrestored version) on Youtube w/ English subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-gfNZqKULw
The Night it Rained (Kamran Shirdel, 1967)
If you were under the impression that Iranian cinema’s tradition for self-reflexive films blurring the boundaries between fiction and documentary began with Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, this half-hour pseudo-documentary has news for you. After graduating from the Centro Sperimentale film school in Rome, Kamran Shirdel returned to Iran and was commissioned by the Ministry of Arts and Culture to make a documentary about a local news story: a village boy had supposedly saved a train from imminent disaster by alerting it to a collapsed bridge.
However, once on location, the film crew soon realised no two people they interviewed could agree on what actually transpired. Some believed the boy a hero, but just as many claimed he had done nothing at all. Others still stated there was no train at all, it had been halted many stations back on a flood warning. And how did the boy set fire to his jacket to signal on a night when it was raining cats and dogs anyway? Was this a tall tale invented by the active imagination of a young boy? Or are the railway company covering up their tracks to spare themselves charges of gross negligence? With enigmatic irony and playful reflexivity, Shirdel collages what should have been a straightforward assignment into a Rashomon-esque investigation into the relativity of truth and film’s tenuous hold over it.
Available to watch on Youtube w/ English subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXBZgfkz-D8
Gheisar (Masud Kimiai, 1969)
The idea of the tough guy, who has to prove himself and his masculine honour through physical action, is a long-existing archetype in Iranian culture. In movies, the myth of the Iranian tough guy found its apogee in Masud Kimiai’s cult revenge classic, Gheisar, a film which revolutionised commercial genre cinema in Iran.
Gheisar is the titular hero/anti-hero played by Iranian cinema icon Behrouz Vossoughi. He returns home, in a poor neighbourhood of Tehran after months away for work, to find his family has been ripped apart. His sister has been raped and subsequently committed suicide. His older brother has been murdered. All the work of three villainous brothers. But they had not reckoned for the lengths Gheisar would go to for retribution. It is a question of family honour, so going to the police never enters Gheisar’s mind: he knows these are wrongs that he has to right himself, and the film follows him on his vendetta, including three atmospheric set pieces for each of the three showdowns with the trio of culprits. One is set in a public bath-house where the murder in the shower cubicle clearly nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho, the second in an abattoir, and the finale among deserted train tracks, the end of the line. But the film also undermines Gheisar’s quest, showing how heavy the cost of his violent vengeance truly is: by the end he has lost his fiancée and left his mother to die alone. One telling scene, in which his wiser uncle attempts to appease him from his reckless course, clearly shows the older man reading Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the great national epic of Iran in which the original tough-guy warriors implement their strength with more personal discipline than the doomed Gheisar.
Available to watch on Youtube w/ English subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHkkjQIx3to
Tangsir (Amir Naderi, 1973)
Following Gheisar, you can complete the double-bill of revenge films starring Behrouz Vossoughi by watching Tangsir, a more technically polished and more explicitly political film directed by Amir Naderi, who was actually part of the crew on Gheisar and would become a key figure of the ‘New Iranian Cinema’ in the 1980s with films like The Runner.
With the look of an adventure epic, the righteous anger of a brutal vendetta story recalling the first episode of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin and a messianic folk hero akin to Nabil Maleh’s The Leopard, Tangsir is an incendiary movie that burns bright on the horizon of anti-Shah cinema. Vossoughi this time plays a native of a small region in Southwest Iran, a simple but proud man who’s been hoodwinked out of his life savings by an unscrupulous band of influential local men: a mullah, a lawyer, a governor and a prominent merchant. No matter how much he tries to obtain justice, he is met with nothing but further humiliation. Those sympathetic to his cause beseech him to await God’s punishment, but how much can a man take? Daring to do what others only dream of, he digs up his trusty old rifle to wreak bloody revenge on figures who are obvious stand-ins for the wider social injustices of the Shah’s contemporary Iran, despite the film being set in the nominal past of the 1930s. Nevertheless, so steadfast is this revenge mission and so clearly foreshadowing of the violence of the Revolution to come is Naderi’s film, that in retrospect one wonders how it ever got past the censors. Perhaps 1970s Iranian cinema stands as testament to the hubristic delusion of the Shah that everything was fine in his nation, when in fact all signs were pointing otherwise.
Available to watch on Vimeo w/ English subs: https://vimeo.com/164049740
The Mongols (Parviz Kimiavi, 1973)
Imagine a hybrid between Godard, Buñuel and Jodorowsky, rooted in Persian history and culture and making films in the Shah’s Iran, and you may get some idea of the wavelength the unique Parviz Kimiavi was working on. In this film he himself plays a television producer who, on the night before he must depart on an assignment to install television receivers in the desert, becomes lost in reverie in his apartment while reading about early cinema history and listening to his wife’s thesis on the 13th century Mongol invasion of Persia. Suddenly, Kimiavi’s film becomes a projection of his stream of consciousness, in which the various things on his mind (history, cinema, technology) coalesce into one fantastical cinematic daydream set in a timeless vision of Iran. Kimiavi’s style is allegorical, experimental, surreal, never short of striking imagery, and burrows deep into the Iranian cultural psyche. Rural Iran, in many ways still as ancient as when the Mongols called, needs social reform but instead gets a new invader it barely understands in the shape of electromagnetic signals — an unmistakable biting satire of the Shah’s policies of supposed modernisation for Iran. Elsewhere, a group of fourth-wall-breaking Mongols wander the desert continually trying to escape Kimiavi’s film and calling into question his cinematic talents. The director includes himself in this examination of the imbalances of 1970s Iran — the onscreen version of Parviz, an impotent artist forced to compromise by taking official assignments, ends up guillotined but, instead of a head, a roll of 16mm film drops off. A rare and unforgettable film that deserves far more exposure.
Available to watch on Youtube w/ French subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HerTtAY2ThM
Still Life (Sohrab Shahid-Saless, 1974)
Alongside Parmiz Kimiavi, Sohrab Shahid-Saless might be Iranian cinema’s best kept secret. The two filmmakers could not be more different however: Kimiavi was the modernist Godardian iconoclast, while Shahid-Saless was a master of quiet and observational Chekhovian tales. He made just two features in Iran, before a run-in with the Shah’s secret police forced him into exile in Germany. Nevertheless, the legacy of his films casts a long shadow over Iranian cinema: Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf cite him as an irreplaceable influence.
It is not hard to see why, because he was the first to break off Iranian cinema’s dependence on narrative drama, creating gently observed films in which little happens but upon greater scrutiny contain philosophical and emotional riches. Still Life, his second feature, follows the travails of an elderly railway switchman in rural Iran, as he slowly comes to terms with losing his job to a younger man, and being discarded unceremoniously after decades of service. It is a cumulatively powerful tale of transition and change. But think also about what was happening in Iran at the time: just as the Shah was bombastically promoting his ego-driven campaigns of so-called modernisation and urbanisation, Shahid-Saless instead focuses with restraint and minimalism on the desolation of Iranian village life. And not only this, his directorial vision demonstrated incredible aesthetic precision: the camera remains static throughout, the compositions are exquisitely geometric, and the takes are ritualistically long, like a still life painting come alive. Here is a film with the meditative stasis of Ozu, the ascetic purity of Bresson, and the distilled temporality of Tarkovsky, exemplifying the rich variety of 1970s Iranian cinema. Why don’t more people know about it?
Available to watch on Youtube w/ English subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRSzJaBgJKE
The Traveller (Abbas Kiarostami, 1974)
It was upon seeing Sohrab Shahid Saless’s debut film A Simple Event that a young Abbas Kiarostami felt an artistic epiphany. Armed with a new sense of possibility, Kiarostami soon after made The Traveller, his own debut feature, about Ghassem, a young schoolboy in a provincial town.
Like Sabzian in Kiarostami’s 1990 boundary-blurring masterpiece Close Up, Ghassem is a desperate dreamer longing to transcend an existence offering little solace. He wants escape from his overworked carpenter father who has no time for him, from his distressed mother who is powerless to do anything but nag at him, and most of all from the tyrannical schoolmasters whose corporal punishment, rote learning, and constant shouting only further alienate him. Within his given circumstances, there is only one escape: football. Ghassem is so obsessed with the game that he dedicates all his time to it, playing it when he should be at school, and trying to raise funds to sneak on the bus to Tehran to watch an important match live at the stadium.
As always, Kiarostami draws exquisitely natural performances from his young actors, casting upon them an empathetic gaze — indeed the way Ghassem ‘directs’ the other children during the photo-shoot sequence suggests there is plenty of Kiarostami himself in the boy. That said, Kiarostami does not simplistically load all the narrative stakes in Ghassem’s favour. This boy is not some unrealistic paragon of innocence and that makes his character all the more affecting. Nor does the failing of the adults around him entirely excuse him. Ghassem clearly has brains, but chooses to use them in the wrong way, preferring to hustle money through scamming other children rather than studying for his upcoming exam. Most of all, when shunning his loyal schoolmate Akbar, Ghassem is neglecting something far more immediate and worthwhile than faraway football fixtures: true friendship.
With its final denouement, Kiarostami’s neo-neorealist film shows itself to be a moral fable, and we can only hope his young traveller who has captured our imaginations has learnt something from the journey.
Available to watch on Youtube w/ English subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XeM2wKkz1w
The Cycle (Dariush Mehrjui, 1978)
No overview of Iranian cinema before the Revolution (nor after it for that matter) would be complete without a film by the great Dariush Mehrjui. Arguably more famous and celebrated in Iran than Kiarostami was, Mehrjui is best known in the west for The Cow (1969), a realist rural fable of one man’s descent into bovine folly after his beloved cow dies. But perhaps his greatest work, and certainly his most caustically critical, was The Cycle, made in 1974 but only finally allowed out of the Iranian censors’ vaults in 1978.
And no wonder, for this tale of a young naive man who comes to the city to seek medical treatment for his ailing elderly father was as direct an indictment of the rotten core of Iranian society under the Shah’s regime as was ever made. Ali, the young man at the centre of the film, soon finds out that there is no hope of his father getting any help without money, and to get money he has to descend into a vicious cycle of survival and exploitation. At first he runs errands in the decaying hospital, an institution that could be straight out of Kafka, where the storage basement substitutes for a morgue and the doctors play sex games with the nurses. Before long he is sucked into a blood-selling ring which preys on alcoholics and junkies, desperate tramps and gamblers, literally taking their blood for a pittance, before selling it back to the hospital, where those same desperate souls will eventually seek treatment. Ali, once himself the exploited, is corrupted into the exploiter with horrific ease, profiting from those who were once as needy as him. Never a miserable social-realist film, Mehrjui’s strange picaresque tale uses Buñuelian touches and tonal shifts in its capture of the capitalist cycle of societal vampirism.
The Ballad of Tara (Bahram Beyzai, 1979)
Right on the eve of the Revolution, Bahram Beyzai made one of the many gems of his film career. One of the most erudite of Iranian film directors, Beyzai began as writer and director for the theatre, and has spent the last decade teaching Persian culture and mythology in the United States. Like Amir Naderi, he moved into an American-based exile after the Revolution, but perhaps more than any filmmaker Beyzai’s work is deeply rooted in Iran’s cultural memory, its myths, its poetry, its folk tales.
The Ballad of Tara is a magic realist allegory centred on a young widow, Tara, who finds an ancient sword in her dead grandfather’s belongings. Useless as it is to her, she trades it with another fellow villager — but he brings it back the next day, terrified of this mystical sword with hidden powers. For as Tara will soon find out, it is a sword that belonged to an ancient Persian warrior whose ghost returns to the present and insists on remaining near his trusty weapon. Some of the imagery is unforgettable: a whole army emerging out of the sea, trees bleeding like martyrs, and the proudly defiant figure of Susan Taslimi as Tara torn between her life in the present and this visitor from another world with whom she gradually falls in love. The theme of the handing down of Iran’s past, is once again not without political implications, especially if one remembers how the Shah attempted to co-opt the legacy of Ancient Persia as his own in order to glorify himself. But here Beyzai renders the spirit of Iran as something that surivives beyond any of the oppressive but temporary regimes Iran has faced.
Available to watch on Youtube w/ French subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0v3xRyanI6Y