By now the curiosity and exotic values of Iranian cinema should have fallen by the wayside, to leave the simple appreciation of the intrinsic cinematic qualities of each film. Judging from the work that reaches the West (some of which, it must be said, isn't necessarily seen in Iran itself), Iranian cinema is no different than everyone else's: there's the good, the bad and the indifferent. A Respectable Family, Massoud Bakhshi's debut fictional feature after a few well-received documentaries, is a clear case of an under-performer that never really makes the best of its alluring central premise: making the Persian equivalent of a 1970s political thriller, about an innocent man caught in a Kafkian web of corruption.

     The man, in Mr. Bakhshi's film, is Arash Saafi (Babak Hamidian), a college professor living outside Iran who returned to teach a six-month course at the invitation of Shiraz University. Despite butting heads with the college authorities over the content of his classes, Arash kept mostly a low-profile until, with one week to go before his return to Europe, the dominoes start to fall. Problems arise with his documentation, his estranged father's lawyer shows up with news of a secret bank account to benefit only him and his mother, and the father himself dies during a visit to Teheran. As he remembers the difficult family situations he lived during the Iran-Iraq war, with his mother finding out his father had a second family and hoarded rationing stocks for his own profit before eventually leaving him, Arash finds he has to deal with the other side of the family he has tried to keep away from: his thuggish half-brother Jafar (Mehran Ahmadi), Zohreh (Parivash Nazarieh), the childhood sweetheart that eventually married Jafar and found refuge in devout religion, and his secretive, edgy, can-do nephew Hamed (an excellent Mehrdad Sedighian).

     The political ramifications of this "respectable family" (the irony is, of course, meant throughout) go very deep and dark indeed, but Arash's harrowing journey through those dark corridors would be much more fascinating had Mr. Bakhshi written him as less of a passive cypher. A thriller is only as good as its hero, and Arash isn't much of one, as he merely endures what is thrown at him and observes without ever making much of a choice. Mr. Hamidian portrays him not so much as a character but as an archetype of the baffled man out of his league, a mere puppet buffeted from all sides by the wind, unhelped by the way the director frames and stages the plot in a rather indifferent, occasionally amateurish manner. The film does come alive in fits and starts: Mr. Sedighian's forceful performance as Hamed instils an edge of danger throughout, and the scenes invoking Arash's memories (apparently inspired by Mr. Bakhshi's own past experiences growing up) are the film's strongest, conveying enormous information about the period in a few well-measured brush strokes.

     There is something to be said about the disenchanted portrait of modern Iran A Respectable Family paints, in line with we have seen in the works of Asghar Farhadi or Rafi Pitts. But while it's certainly valid to look at it as in that league, it's equally valid to point out that Mr. Bakhshi's film is full of good ideas and intentions that aren't as realised as they could have been.

Cast: Babak Hamidian, Mehrdad Sedighian, Ahoo Kheradmand, Mehran Ahmadi, Parivash Nazarieh, Behnaz Jafari, Mehrdad Zini, Yazdan Jamshidi, Matin Khalibi, Niki Nasirian
Director and writer: Massoud Bakhshi
Cinematography: Mahdi Jafari  (colour)
Designer: Mahmoud Bakhshi
Editor: Jacques Comets
Producers: Mohammad Afardeh, Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin  (Firoozei Film, JBA Production)
Iran/France, 2012, 90 minutes

Screened: distributor advance DVD screener, Lisbon, July 28th 2013


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