The Mirror (1998) - Jafar Panahi
There are a few times when a film fits perfectly into a movement or genre. The Iranian New Wave has become something of both. Not just a time in Iranian cinema, but also a distinct film style, blending fiction with documentary, professional with amateur, and stories so powerfully simple that its almost deceptive. Panahi's The Mirror fits this mold as exquisitely as few films have. Panahi's previous ventures were written by Abbas Kiarostami, and here Panahi borrows a page directly from the master's much revered Close-Up. It is remarkable that in the midst of this film even the audio plays tricks and cuts out, reminiscent of the bike ride at the conclusion of Kiarostami's film.
The twist in this film comes about half way through, and I must say for one that it was a welcome one. Watching the film I was having a moderate time keeping interested. Mina Mohammed-Khani's voice is dreadfully shrill and high pitched to a point of nearly instant irritation. Watching her plight of trying to get home in the beginning was growing thin. Simple plots can be evocative but occasionally you need more to stimulate something. You have a general interest in this girl getting home, but it isn't until the film changes course that you really get involved.
Half way through you here the phrase "Don't look at the camera" following a bout of silence from Mina who refuses to answer the bus driver. An almost instant smile of gratification comes on, because you know that this film has just broken the fourth wall. What makes the film ironic is how the second half directly parallels the first, but is given a completely different spin. It is shot at a distance, the shots are longer, and occasionally obstructed by passing cars that happen to stop briefly in direct line of the camera. Mina disappears sometimes behind trees, or crowds and it takes a minute or two for the film to find her again. It loses the professional gloss of the first half, but make no mistake about it, it is just as carefully rehearsed, and in many ways more so. Watching some of the scenes I surprisingly enough am recalling some of Michael Snow's work, or the very least Akerman's unobtrusive kino-eye.
For a sense of closure of course Mina has to make it home, but that is so dreadfully unimportant. Just like one hardly remembers the delivery of the notebook in Where is the Friend's Home? The film parallels itself in more ways than one. Notably the soccer score at the beginning and end of the film, as one score is made at the beginning and the final is revealed at the end of the film, roughly 90 minutes later, or the appropriate time of a match. Just as before the sound eventually cuts out and once Mina is home it becomes a silent picture, with the same static camera shot. I've rarely seen such deliberate exploitation of cinematic equipment in a film, and the intention is clear to make us aware that a film is being shot. I have no direct knowledge of how much of the film has been improvised but it certainly feels like all of it is winged. First rate work from a film that got off to a bumpy and predictable start.