How do our action reversible through time?
Two Iranian films screening in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul International Film Festival broach this question in markedly disparate ways. Ida Panahandeh’s Titi and Shahram Mokri’s Careless Crime (Jenayat-e bi deghat) probe the generic conventions of the romantic drama and the biopic thriller, respectively, in their portraits of people struggling for autonomy in a sociopolitical and even existentialist sense.
Of the two, Carless Crime is the most formally audacious in its reflexive deconstruction of the Rex Cinema Fire, one of the most notorious cases of arson during the Iranian Revolution that killed over four hundred people. Rather than dramatize the events leading to the tragedy, Mokri confounds expectations by housing his plot within a Russian nesting doll structure, oscillating between the perpetrators, the employees of the cinema, and a film-within-the-film also sharing the title of Careless Crime.
The film most closely resembles traditional genre filmmaking in the scenes where Takbali (Abdolfazl Kahani), a hoodlum struggling to procure unsanctioned prescription drugs, conspires with three other men to set a cinema ablaze in modern-day Iran. Mokri’s signature, elongated tracking shots prove most fascinating when their focus turns from generating suspense to drawing our gradual awareness toward the film’s cyclical motifs. Certain scenes are revisited from the vantage points of different characters and Masoud Kimiai’s The Deer (Ghavaznha), the film playing in the Cinema Rex that fateful August day in 1978, flits back into conversation, portending a past trauma threatening to repeat itself.
Rather than merely presenting history as recurring trauma, Careless Crime ponders the way cinema acts as a mediator between fiction and reality, past and present in a vein closer to the political angst of Jafar Panahi’s films than the quiet perspicacity of Abbas Kiarostami’s poetic cinema. At two hours and fifteen minutes, the film threatens to outweigh its thematic concerns with suspenseful sequences lacking the subversive reflexivity of the film’s strongest moments. But Careless Crime lingers not as a dramatized history lesson, but a collective nightmare of the past projected onscreen for all to see in the present.
Social inequity is depicted with a considerably gentler touch by Ida Panahandeh for her character study Titi. Elnaz Shakerdoost plays the eponymous heroine, a Roma hospital cleaner who strikes up a friendship with Ibrahim (Parsa Pirouzfar), a physics professor entangled in a nasty divorce. In a moment of euphoric clarity, Ibrahim solves a complex equation related to supermassive black holes, yet immediately lapses into a coma and awakens to learn that the papers are now in Titi’s possession. Before long both Titi and Ibrahim undertake a peculiar odyssey of sorts, confronting their own lingering regrets and their blossoming relationship with one another.
If this second point sounds like the stuff of schmaltzy romance paperbacks, Panahandeh’s screenplay (co-written by longtime collaborator Arsalan Amiri) goes some way toward mitigating its saccharine impulses. A love triangle begins taking some shape when Titi’s boorish boyfriend Amir-Sassan (Hootan Shakiba) enters the plot to express his barely masked resentment of Ibrahim’s affluence. A dichotomy between rural and urban life in Iran is just one element of the film’s pointed, yet not cynical, social critique.
At the center of it all lies Shakerdoost, walking a fine balance in making her eccentricities seem recognizable rather than the quirky machinations of the script. Titi, the character, is ultimately defined less by her peculiarities than in her failing to fit neatly within the role prescribed to her as biological mother for the offspring of Amir-Sassan’s brusque acquaintances. That said, the film does humanize its other characters without softening or condoning their sometimes callous actions. Titi builds to a bittersweet conclusion that doesn’t fulfill the ambitious promise of its opening shot but nevertheless offers quiet compassion that makes the film a quietly poignant, if ultimately slight, tale of a formidable woman.