Friday, March 9, 2012

The Hunter (Skekarchi)

THE HUNTER (Skekarchi)        B                   
Iran  Germany  (92 mi)  2010  d:  Rafi Pitts  

Whenever there is a country under political turmoil where suppressing freedom of speech is an issue, it’s easy for the West to read into it what they want to believe, often making exaggerated claims of political ramifications, or offering overpraise.  Filmmakers in Iran have been dancing around this issue for decades, usually writing in code or metaphor, developing allegorical storytelling, where the government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has simply not allowed open criticism or dissenting point of views from their artists.  Perhaps the greatest name in Iranian cinema is Abbas Kiarostami, one of the few working directors who remained in Iran after the Revolution, developing a naturalistic style of cinema stripped of all artifice, often using children or stories of ordinary life focusing on the intimacy of the human condition.  Kiarostami’s keen intellect and poetic powers of observation have always risen above the political realm.  Rafi Pitts, on the other hand, spent his childhood in Tehran, but moved to England with his family as a young teenager during the Iran/Iraq conflict, educated in the West, eventually working with filmmakers in Paris, where his outsider filmmaking style is a hybrid of dueling cultures.  What sets this film apart from other Iranian films is its prolific use of Western genre styles, while also offering an unusual ambiguity, almost refusing to reveal pertinent plot details, becoming an odd modernist take on what it’s like to live in Iran today.  Pitts has a daring artistic style, which is evident during the opening credit sequence, a kind of blurred, painterly montage set to blaring heavy metal rock music, before it comes to rest upon an infamous 1980 archival photo taken by Manoocher Deghati of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in full motorcycle regalia, celebrating the first anniversary of the Revolution as they’re about to drive over an American flag painted on the street, which is followed by the title.  Make of it what you will, but it certainly sets the tone for what follows. 

Pitts seemingly divides his film in half, where the opening sequences are filmed in Tehran, something of a concrete jungle, seen as a series of interconnecting highways, each one loaded to capacity with speeding cars dizzyingly moving back and forth in a rather pointless use of one’s time, isolated from the real world, nearly invisible behind an everpresent toxic sheen of smog that bleaches out all color, leaving only the briefest outlines of a city landscape.  Pitts himself plays the lead character, nearly wordlessly throughout, apparently a last minute fill-in for someone who didn’t show up to work on time.  There is a heavy reliance on an automobile, like 70’s cult flicks VANISHING POINT (1971), TWO-LANED BLACKTOP (1972), or THE DRIVER (1978), where this one similarly features multiple shots of a car zooming through various tunnels, getting groomed in an automatic car wash, driven by an urban loner who works the midnight shift as a night watchman, unable to work the dayshift, apparently, due to his ex-con background.  So he lives a solitary life largely excluded from his wife and young daughter, seen together only briefly before they mysteriously disappear, where he can be seen futilely searching the streets and hospitals, apparently hiding the truth from his mother (the director’s own mother), when he excuses their absence during a planned visit for his daughter’s birthday.  Later he’s told by the police they were accidentally killed in a shootout between police and demonstrators in the lead up to the 2009 Presidential election, news that seems to light a fuse of inner rage.  Grabbing his rifle, which we’ve seen him use for hunting in earlier scenes, he uses it this time for target practice, picking off two police officers in a random act of retaliatory violence, quickly fleeing the scene.

In a soupy fog, the car can be seen racing through back highways and small country roads, chased by a swarm of police cars after him, where he eventually slides off the side of the road in a hairpin turn and crashes his car, retreating into the forest where he’s quickly apprehended by two uniformed officers.  Strangely, the entire focus of the film shifts as the police lose all sense of direction in the dense forest, where the two police officers start arguing among themselves, both angrily making accusations, blaming the other for their unfortunate predicament, made even worse by a steady downpour of rain.  This turns into an existential power struggle with these two guys at each other’s throats, with all sense of morality lost and adrift in the serene beauty of the woods, beautifully shot by cinematographer Mohammad Davudi, where the prisoner is nothing more than dead weight, extraneous baggage to carry, where he may as well already be dead, according to one officer, already labeling him a cop-killer.  This turns into an eerie chamber drama between the three characters, where the wordless prisoner is like a blank wall reflecting the attitudes back onto the other two, where each grows more suspicious of the other, descending into a hellish cesspool of contempt and disgust, where their inner rage seems to parallel the criminal mentality of the prisoner, showing how easily people can lose their bearings.  The natural environment provides no more sanctuary than the urban jungle, each one just as indifferent, where by the end all three are mere skeletons of their former selves, veering into George Romero zombie territory where one wonders what will be left of the last traces of humanity.  While offering occasional stylistic flourishes, the film is entertaining enough, but remains overly ambiguous and slight, offering hints rather than real observations, led by a murky character we never come to identify with, leaving instead the alienated impression of a Stranger in a Strange Land.  The film is dedicated to another Iranian exile, author Bozorg Alavi, who left Iran in the U.S. led 1953 military coup d’etat that brought the Shah to power, whose 1952 short story Gileh Mard (The Man from Gilan) inspired the film.     

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