Movies

3 Faces is both suicide-mystery and social critique

Iran has always been something of a cinematic mystery; a repressive regime where filmmakers can be jailed or forbidden to travel, it has nonetheless produced such visionary directors as Asghar Farhadi, Samira Makhmalbaf and the late Abbas Kiarostami.

That list must also include Jafar Panahi, whose newest, 3 Faces, took the best screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – this in spite of him being officially banned from his craft.

The story, about a suicide note and a missing woman, is therefore a mystery inside a mystery. It opens with a distraught young woman, an aspiring actress named Marziyeh recording herself on an iPhone. She’s begging for help from Behnaz Jafari, a well-known Iranian actress, before apparently hanging herself.

Jafari, playing herself, is watching the video repeatedly while heading toward the mountain village where Marziyeh said she was. She’s distraught but also skeptical – for one thing, how did the woman send her the message after she died?

Her driver is Panahi, also playing himself. Or perhaps it’s a version of himself; at times, he sound more like a detective than a director. “They can hide everything except the body,” he says of people who try to cover up crimes. And after passing through a small community: “Something was going on there, but it didn’t smell of death.”

The mystery plays out at a lazy pace, not unlike life in rural northern Iran, where the film was shot. One extended sequence finds Jafari and Panahi being schooled in a complicated system of car honks designed to let traffic negotiate a narrow pass with no line-of-sight communication. “Everything falls apart without rules,” explains one of the village elders, and we sense a subtle critique of the regime playing out in subtext.

The mystery deepens when they track down Marziyeh’s home. She hasn’t been seen for three days, but there’s no body to be found. The nearest thing to a fresh grave is an old woman who’s lying in the ground, morbidly trying out her future burial place.

And then suddenly the riddle is solved, but the film still has another 45 minutes to go. And it’s here that Panahi’s real motive becomes clear – or perhaps it’s better to say one of his motives. The three faces of the title are three generations of Iranian actresses; the young, would-be entertainer whose frantic video starts the action; the middle-aged Jafari; and Shahrzad, who was famous in film before the 1979 revolution but hasn’t worked since.

She appears in 3 Faces only obliquely, as a voiceover reading her poetry, and that invisibility highlights issues faced by female actors the world over, but perhaps more sharply in Iran. If we value the entertainment, why devalue the entertainer?

The somewhat jarring shift from suicide-mystery to quiet social critique may annoy some viewers who think they know where the film is headed. But both halves of the story carry a message from a part of the world where the message sometimes has a difficult time being heard. 3 Faces received a standing ovation at Cannes. Panahi couldn’t leave Iran to witness it.

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