September 15, 2011

Chronicle of a Nation

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Amidst the surreal, colorless and sun-blasted landscape of Iran’s Lake Urmia, a curious, solitary man in a rumpled business shirt plies his bizarre trade. He rows his boat to the different islands that dot the salt lake and collects the tears of its inhabitants for a purpose known only to him. As he visits each island, he witnesses the absurd and at times, almost frightening events that stem from the inhabitants’ superstitions, customs and prejudices. As a taciturn observer, he regards these happenings with a spectator’s implacable eyes, showing compassion at times and indifference at others, always toeing the line to avoid being understood by the audience until the opportune moment at the film’s denouement where, in an almost anticlimactic scene, the film’s central tension — the mystery of why he collects tears — is resolved.

While this synopsis might seem a tad too surreal to work at first, there is much more to Mohammed Rasoulof’s The White Meadows than meets the eye. Indeed, one could say that The White Meadows was created with a very specific political end in mind-  as a subtle but powerful satirical allegory criticizing the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. To the uninitiated (including me), this element of allegory is not apparent at first, but as the absurdity of the spectacle piles up, and as our protagonist tear-collector, Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), does his rounds, the criticisms become more obvious.

This becomes apparent as we notice that the film does not employ a traditional narrative structure. Rahmat visits five islands in the film, and none of them have much to do with the others. This fragmented, parable-a-day structure lends itself well to the allegorical style of the film. In each island Rahmat witnesses a different aspect of the so-called ills of Iranian society. On the first island, for example, he comes to take the body of a beautiful young woman to a place where she can be buried. The villagers comment on how it was better that she had died, as her very presence had been a sexual provocation. The film lingers on this casually misogynistic anecdote just long enough to inform the viewers that some message is indeed being deliberately communicated here. At this juncture in the narrative the film throws something of a curveball at us. We see a second character, an idealistic young man, join Rahmat on his travels in an effort to find his estranged father. Now, if this had been a normal film, perhaps this new addition would have become a foil for Rahmat to develop as a character, and perhaps the movie might have turned into a triumphant bildungsroman narrative in which boy finds father and develops into a man because of it. But this movie is not just any Hollywood inspirational flick. Brutally, the boy dies because he tried to violate a religious custom — much like the Iranian dissidents who bear the brunt of the heavy-handed theocracy of the Islamic government of Iran, and suffer futilely even as they martyr themselves for a seemingly doomed cause. Whatever triumphalist moralizing the boy’s storyline might have had is unceremoniously snuffed out. Rahmat may be collecting tears and capturing the manifold forms of grief of the common folk, but there is no sentimentality here.

The alien-like landscape of the setting, in the salt lake Urmia, is another powerful tool that the movie uses to convey its sober allegory. The islands that Rahmat plies dot a gray, formless landscape devoid of green, where sea melts seamlessly into the sky in the horizon, and where the people are simultaneously pitiable in their hardship and despicable in their ignorance and small-minded bigotry. They believe in Rahmat’s purpose even as it remains an enigma to them. He tirelessly and painstakingly collects tears, they believe, to make pearls, and to cast magic that will lift the burden of sadness from their hearts. Little do they know, that under Rahmat’s compassionate façade, lies a person with his own idiosyncratic foibles and a liaison to a semi-divine agency, which is hinted to be the cause of this situation. The only time we see vibrant colors in the film is at its denouement, when Rahmat leaves the salt lake and ventures into the beautiful, forested compound of the spiritual leader, presumably an analogue to the Ayatollah, and bathes his feet in the tears that he has collected — a gesture so telling in its obsequiousness that it beggars the imagination. It is a startlingly understated scene, almost anticlimactic, but the implications of this visual metaphor as applied to the Iranian situation are portentous.

If the film’s allegorical structure is its strength, it is also its greatest weakness. The narrative becomes more focused and satirical after the first two islands, when one starts to realize that this film is building up to no edifying conclusion and is simply dealing out its cards as a straight out allegory. The effect of this is a plodding pace that shines mostly because of its rich visual subtext and the catharsis that one gets out of penetrating the allegories that abound. This film is best not viewed casually; it requires patience and commitment, but is nonetheless ultimately rewarding and even tragic in its quiet subtlety.

Original Author: Colin Chan