Achtung! Achtung! This blog post contains spoilers!
We like to see at least one film at the annual Berlin Film Festival (die Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin or the Berlinale, this year in its 65th showing) that we would otherwise not go and see. The première of Fifty Shades of Grey fell into this category, but methinks we are well out of the demographical Venn Diagram for that audience. We nearly went to see 'K', a film in Mongolian with German sub-titles that recreates Kafka's The Castle in a modern-day Mongolian village. Intriguing indeed, but instead we plumped for Madare Ghalbe Atoomi by Iranian director Ali Ahmadzade.
The film's title translates as 'Atom Heart Mother' and references the Pink Floyd album of dubious artistic quality of the same name. It is set over the course of one late night in Tehran and follows the random road-journey of two modern, twenty-something, Iranian and christian, girlfriends.
Our protagonists Arineh (played by Taraneh Alidoosti, known for her first role in the 2002 film I Am Taraneh, I Am Fifteen Years Old) and Nobahar (played by actress and director Pegah Ahangarani), begin the film driving from a private party. Well, actually it begins with Nobahar sitting on a rest-room toilet (her needing to micturate is a persistent theme in the film) with Arineh waiting for her whilst dreamily opening and closing the lift doors (opening and closing doors also ends up being significant later in a very different way).
The close friends have dyed hair, brightly coloured modern clothing, wear make-up, smoke cigarettes, and have clearly been drinking. This is the first shock of the film for the average ignorant Westerner (us included), because surely women in Iran are kept veiled behind closed doors, not driving cars and partying? Maybe because they are Christian they can get away with it?
No really. This blog post does contain spoliers!
They soon meet up with a young male friend, Kami (played by Mehrdad Sedighian) walking bare-foot alongside the highway. "Why do you walk everywhere Kami?" "Because that's what I do!". Kami has a shock of black hair and a beard, and all the time wears a natty pair of large red-framed plastic sunglasses, even though it is after midnight.
The friends sit by the roadside, high-above night-time Tehran, discussing how the Western-style lavatory was an Iranian invention, and about the so-called 27 club (the group of popular musicians who died at the age of 27, including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain), and also the need for Iran to have nuclear weapons to defend itself.
Kami tells them of a dream where he was looking down on Tehran from this spot, when it suddenly exploded in a nuclear blast, and he lit his cigarette from the fire-ball. This is the atom heart mother of the film's title, and atomic energy is touched on later when we find that one of our heroines is supposedly a life-saving nuclear physicist is a parallel world. Oh, but I am revealing too much!
Spoiler alert! Spolier alert!
Kami joins the women and they drive off down the highway, but against the traffic. "Why are you driving the wrong way down a one-way road?" "Because that's what I do!" explains Arineh, perhaps as a metaphor for her being counter to everything we expect of a depiction of an Iranian woman.
They then give a joyous and highly amusing karaoke rendition of USA For Africa's 'We are the World', with Kami in particular giving a wonderful Stevie Wonder performance.
Singing karaoke whilst driving drunk, the wrong way up the highway, inevitably ends abruptly when they hit a car at an intersection. This is when a George Clooney look-alike, called Toofan, turns up. Incidently, he is played by Mohammad Reza Golzar, who before giving it up to become an actor was the guitarist in the successful Persian music group 'Arian Band'. Truefax.
On Toofan's advice they agree to pay-off the driver of the damaged car before the Police turn up. But nobody has any money, and so Kami sets off to find an ATM. They know this is a futile quest, because tonight is the night that 75 million Iranians get paid a dividend from the country's oil revenues and will be withdrawing it as soon as they can. This payout, Arineh explains, is because of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 'economic surgery' where every eligible Iranian gets a monthly cash handout, in lieu of closing down the government's social security programmes.
I've warned you enough already! Don't read on if you are planning on seeing the film!
Arineh and Nobahar slip off in the car again, mainly because Nobahar needs the toilet. In fact we discover that this is because she has MS, and it is implied that she is in fact very ill and likely to die (but not young enough now to join the 27 Club).
They get stopped by a Policeman over the accident, who goes with them in their car in search of Kami. The Policeman is very definitely old-school Iran, and accuses them of worshipping Satan because they haven't got husbands and listen to 'Satan's music'. The Policeman is evidently curious about these strange young women, and asks them if they have seen the Oscar-winning film 'Argo'. That film is about the audacious rescue of six Americans from Tehran by the CIA during the US hostage crisis of 1980. You can imagine that it is tabooed in Iran, though pirate copies are probably circulating illicitly. They tell him that it is an awful film that depicts Iranians scandalously. The Policeman says yes, but can you tell me something specific that I can tell my friends. The two women hedge, and you get the impression that they haven't really seen it themselves and are just mouthing the sentiments that they tell their friends.
They find Kami walking fruitlessly in search of an ATM with money. "Why his he walking at night in sunglasses?" asks the Policeman. "Because that's what he does!", and they return together to the scene of the car-crash.
Now we find that Toofan has paid off the driver without asking the women, and the two friends feel indebted to him when he then asks them to give him a lift to a service station to meet a friend.
This is the point where the film begins to turn. It almost feels like the splicing point between two very different movies. Up until now it has been a lively, joyful, witty road-trip with no real purpose. You enjoy being in the company of Arineh, Nobahar, and Kami. They are fun guys like any young Westerners, giving the impression that it is not all repression and devote dourness in Tehran.
But then the film starts turning dark and surreal, and it is all Toofan's fault.
It is almost like director Ali Ahmadzade has started channelling David Lynch and 'Lost Highway'.
If you have read this far, I am assuming you are not put off by spoiler alerts!
Toofan is cold, manipulative, and violent. The two women become slaves to his bidding (Kami goes off and is not seen in the film again), and he makes advances towards each in turn when alone with one of them.
An ex-Iraqi dictator you thought was dead unexpectedly turns up in the back of their car. They try and flee to the sanctuary of their church, but Toofan turns up and demonstrates how much better he is at playing the church piano. Usually musical duals with the Devil for your soul involve a violin don't they? Anyway, off they go in the car again. A speech by Hitler comes on over the car stereo. Toofan implies that dictators like Hitler are still alive in another place, a parallel world (or is it Hell?), where Saddam Hussein hid all the country's weapons of mass destruction.
Is Toofan Satan? Is he a metaphor for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, paying off the driver of the other car without asking first, in the way that the president is paying off his people with dividends and similarly expecting indebted obedience? Who knows. It is all getting a bit confusing. Can we have the karaoke back?
Finally Toofan leads them to a plain metal service door in a deserted highway tunnel. The door is labelled C27 (get it?). This is apparently one of only five gateways between this world and Toofan's world. But not the one that Toofan slipped into this world though; that's the wet one at Niagara Falls.
As portals to alternate dimensions and gateways to Hell go, this door is a bit crap. Toofan is going to lead Nobahar and Saddam Hussein through it to the other world. There was an identical Nobahar in the parallel world you see, and she was a nuclear physicist who saved countless lives, but dopple-ganger Nobahar died aged 27. Ha! Arineh can come too if she wants. What will they do? What can they do? Only a game of rock-paper-scissors at the end can determine it.
And so to the matter of the ending. It has got to be one of the worst movie endings ever. Really? What? Has the projector broken down? Do we come back next week for part two? Hmm, not very satisfying at all. At least in Thelma and Lousie say (which has a similar dynamic between the two leads and with the metaphor of a red car) the ending had a trajectory that continued after the cinema lights came up.
Spoilers Over! You can jump to here if you want!
(Jumping?! Don't talk to me about jumping!)
Overall we enjoyed the film. The rich colours are sumptuous on the big screen, and the cinematography is excellent. The through-the-windscreen and side shots in the car are particularly well executed, and all credit to the focus puller for precision in altering the depth of field to zone in on the expressions of individual characters.
There is some good acting too, especially by Taraneh Alidoosti whose screen presence lights up the film. Mohammad Reza Golzar is devilishly handsome, and plays Toofan with a genuine feeling of understated menace without hamming it up like in the way that Al Pacino does in Devil's Advocate.
The plot makes you think, even if you think 'what the heck was that all about?', and it has some genuinely laugh-out-loud witty moments.
As a road movie, they don't travel very far, and even then you see little of modern Tehran, it being pitch dark and all.
If the film is saying anything political about the current-day regime in Iran then it is doing it too subtly for this cinema-goer.
Still, glad we saw it, despite the rubbish ending. And Toofan as a character is surely much more masterful and manipulative than Christian (50 shades of) Grey.
You can see stills from Madare Ghalbe Atoomi that I could have pinched to illustrate this blog post here instead.