“Israfil” directed by Ida Panahandeh (Iran, 2017)

Esrafil poster
REVIEW by Cynthia Webb, 19th May 2018
“Israfil “ (2017, Iran) directed by Ida Panahandeh (pictured above)
Review by Cynthia Webb
While in Iran recently, I watched this very moving second feature film of the young female director, Ida Panahandeh. Her first film was entitled, “Nahid”, and also concerned the often difficult lives of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Nahid” won a prize in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival.
Ida has studied film making in Tehran, and also in Berlin’s “Talent Campus” in 2009, after being recognised as having great potential. This film, “Israfil” showed very mature film-making and is quite a remarkable achievement for a second feature film. I will be watching the future work of this gifted young film director, very closely.

This new film, “Israfil” is like a master-class in classical film-making. Her DOP, Morteza Gheidi, deserves special mention, because the colour design of the film is very subdued, and each frame is carefully thought out to the artistic conventions of composition. The cinematography is always calm and unobtrusive, to complement the behavior of Mahi, and the resigned nature of her attitude to life. The Editor, Hayedeh Safiyari, has supported the quiet tone of the film’s story, by cutting in a measured manner, and although I imagine every woman in the audience was feeling the sadness, perhaps the males were unable to grasp its full message.
The setting is in North Eastern Iran, a small town, where a female teacher, Mahi Ebrahimi (a role written for and played by Hediyah Tehrani, who won Best Actress Award at the Fajr International Film Festival for this performance) is mourning her teenage son Babak, recently killed in a car accident. Her ex boyfriend Behrouz, (Peyman Bazeghi) from almost 20 years ago, has returned from Canada, to sell some family land, and turns up at the funeral. The relatives of Mahi are furious, and there’s an angry uproar in the kitchen of her family home, while her Uncle Abbas says he wants to kill the interloper, with shouts such as “How dare he come back here?” The others manage to calm him down, but he’s a man who will not ever change his mind and forgive.
Then begins the ‘back-story’ and secrets are very quietly revealed. This man, Behrouz, has been the Mahi’s lover in their youth, and in such a subtle way, we learn of his true connection to her and the boy. He and our heroine, walk together and talk and remember past times when they were young, innocent, happy and in love. But it’s all impossible now. He has a new girlfriend.
As the film is divided into three sections, we next meet Sara, (Hoda Zeindabedin) who is Behrouz’s much younger girlfriend, whom he met online, and she has a story of her own, concerning her mother and her brother, which we explore and come to understand why she wishes to go with Behrooz to Canada. Her story too, reveals family problems and responsibilities that can also cause great difficulties to the younger generation.
Finally the third section brings us back to the protagonist, Mahi’s current day problems, which are caused by several things. She’s in grief for the loss of her son, she has committed indiscretions in her youth, which haunt her to this very day, and now she’s alone, with no husband (they split up) and no son either. At her teaching job, there is also trouble.
Life for a woman in modern-day Iran, is filled with pitfalls, and in a small town, it’s even more difficult, as no-one forgets anything, and everyone gossips.
The director has kept control of every tiny detail of this film, and it is loaded with empathy for the difficult lives of women, especially in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Two or three times I found my eyes filling with tears. It was powerful empathy for the brave women of this world who have a more difficult life situation than me.
Always, the quiet and deliberate pace is sustained, to communicate to us the kind of life that one would live in such a small and distant town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s like walking on egg-shells.
The story ends with little hope for the proud and brave Mahi.
Ida Panahandeh, the director explained that she had a lot of trouble getting the screenplay past the Islamic Republic of Iran’s censors, to get permission to make the film. There was one element that may have been the cause, but wasn’t because it was transmitted in such a subtle manner, that perhaps they didn’t notice it. The problem they cited, was that the young woman Sara, states that she wanted to leave Iran, to be able to study art and have more opportunity, by going to Canada with Behrooz.
The title, “Israfil” is the name of one of four angels in the Iranian Islamic tradition, who has a trumpet. In Western world, he is the equivalent of Raphael. There is a line in the script that tells us that our protagonist’s grandmother had some plates with a painted image of Israfil on them. She and Behrooz find one in an antique shop while browsing and talking.
The fact that Mahi is socializing with Beyrouz again, albeit in public places only, scandalizes the town, because everyone knows that they were once in love, and that she attempted suicide when he fled from the town, in fear of her angry uncle. So to mention a “spoiler” which is kept so VERY subtle in the film, Behrooz is the father of her dead son, and she has been hurriedly married off to someone else to avoid scandal. This “ruined her life”, she says, and she has divorced from the husband, who has since died.
The film tells us that these strict religious and social traditions have been cruel to the young people in love, and that both their lives were ruined, but it tells us this almost wordlessly. The spirit of the dead child seems to be one of the main characters in this film, although he’s never seen, except in a picture. He is the link between Behrouz and Mahi, and he is the beginning of their sadness and is hovering over it now. The words that come to mind to describe the feeling of this lovely film, are poignant, dignified, and even tragic. It has so much humanity.
The film was recently shown to considerable acclaim at the BFI’s London Film Festival, 2017.
Copyright 19 May 2018, Cynthia Webb
Poster courtesy of the Producers and IMDb
Photo of the director by Cynthia Webb, copyright, 19 May 2018

About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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