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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chronicles of World Cinema II : "The Mirror"

(Originally published here at

The second on my world cinema series is a film by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Western audiences know Panahi, most recently through his 2006 film “Offside” which depicted the efforts of two Iranian girls to get inside a football stadium, disguised as men. This film created enough of a buzz in the Western critical circles, and also bagged the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. (Although Panahi had in the past, been honoured at Cannes and Venice among others)

This post, however, is not about Offside, but about one of his earlier works, “The Mirror”(1997) which I saw last week. “The Mirror” begins with a little girl, Mina(Mina Mohammed-Khani), who is desperately hoping for her mother to come pick her up after school. She has one arm in a sling, her school is located in a fairly crowded locality in Teheran, and she isn’t really sure about the way home.

As the clock ticks by and no one comes for her, Mina sets off on a journey which will take her through the heart of the city, and us, for the camera remains faithfully, unmovingly fixed on her. Mina is stubborn, fidgety, and walks a tricky line between being intrepid and vulnerable. Did I mention she has the most angelic singsong you could ever hope to hear? If you were one of those who were wowed by the cute-as-a-button-kids in another Iranian film, Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven”, chances are you’ll love this one, too.

But I digress. As Mina begins her quest to reach her home, she encounters the big bad world in all its scary sights and sounds. Using the wide-eyed child’s point of view as a template, Panahi paints a compelling portrait of Teheran. For a movie which has very few cuts, there is little shortage of action as Mina encounters different sorts of people along the way. The conversations which she listens to are sometimes a surprisingly lucid insight into some of the pangs of modernized Iran. One scene in particular, where she listens to an old lady is particularly touching. The old woman laments the fact that she is not allowed to spend time with her Americanized grandchildren, because her son thinks she’ll “spoil their accent”.

Just when you think the film has reached a plateau of sorts, something very surprising happens. Little Mina Mohammed-Khani gives us her best pout, takes off her sling and declares that she’s “not acting anymore”. A group of men with cameras and stuff, ostensibly Panahi and his crew try to persuade her to return, but Mina has decided that enough is enough. This meta-fictional twist takes the film into a completely new direction, and needless to say, makes it all the more ambitious.

Upto this point, this looked very much a film in the hysterical realism, or as they say in cinematic lingo, neo-realist mode… but this took the film into altogether different territory.
From then onwards, the little girl is the real Mina in some scenes, and the reel Mina in others, only both of them seem to be equally clueless about how to reach home! The crew of the film follow her as she tries to make it on her own. At some point, her microphone seems to get disturbed, which brings into play all the street noises of Teheran, lending an intriguing edge to the already unconventional narrative.

Writers like Italo Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, read my review here), Vladimir Nabokov(Pale Fire) and Thomas Pynchon(The Crying of Lot 49) have displayed the immense power of meta-fiction(fiction that is aware of its fictional status, i.e. a self-conscious bit of narrative) if done properly. In cinema, the names which come to mind off the top of my head are Barton Fink by the Coens,the horror thriller Donnie Darko and the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation by the celebrated writer Charlie Kaufman.(Kaufman seems to have a weakness for this : see his debut directorial venture Synechdoche, New York, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman)

“The Mirror” is, ultimately a beguiling statement on the nature of art, and the subtle tricks it often plays on the mind.Believe me, you wouldn’t want to miss this for anything.

Later this week : More on Aki Kaurismaki, and a documentary on one of my favourite comic-book authors, Alan Moore.

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