27th Annual Festival of Films from Iran: Lantouri (2016)
written by: Reza Dormishian
produced by: Reza Dormishian
directed by: Reza Dormishian
runtime: 115 min.
U.S. release date: February 3, 2017 & February 4, 2017 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
You may already be aware how prevelant misogyny and patriarchy reigns supreme in Iranian culture. A woman’s potential is stifled, leaving her to live with a systemic inequality that has existed for decades. When a woman is wronged or abused by a man, emotionally or sexually, especially physically, there is an expectation within the community for the woman to publicly forgive her assailant. It’s an act of courage and allegedly will guarantee a higher position in heaven. Yet, the woman still remains scared forever – either it’ll go unnoticed because it’s an internal wound or will serve as an inescapable reminder if the scars are visible on the outside. The fascinating and complex drama “Lantouri” touches on this never-ending social atrocity that plagues Iran, while providing an original non-linear storytelling approach.
How original? Well, there are moments throughout the film that feel like confessionals from a reality show, in which characters disclose truthful and revealing information and there are also segments from where certain individuals are given camera time where they either reflect on real world occurrences in modern-day Iran or focus on the audience, discussing the film that is being made. In that sense, “Lantouri” often feels like a documentary, albeit a staged one, but a true story nonetheless. It adapts a “Rashomon” storytelling approach that includes several characters offering their own perspectives of the same story.
This distinctive style is handled with confidence and a deft hand from writer/director Reza Dormishian (“I’m Not Angry!” and “Hatred”), a former film critic whose work has been praised by critics and audiences at festivals, yet have come under fire and protests by government and domestic extremists due to the relevant social themes and modern structure they often contain. Dormishian began his career as an assistant to acclaimed director Dariush Mehrjui (1990’s “Hamoun” and 2007’s “Santouri”) and although this is the first film of his that I’ve seen, what I’ve saw was wholly compelling and immensely intriguing.
The film is named after a quartet of vigilantes, who consider themselves would-be Robin Hoods, led by the wild-haired, impetuous Pasha (Navid Mohammadzadeh), who starts out targeting the wealthy in Tehran, but soon moves on to random muggings, kidappings for ransom and blackmail extortion jobs. Branding an assortment of knives and daggers in broad daylight, the team is more into the shock of their attacks than they are making some kind of social statement. They consist of former prostitute, Baroon (Baran Kosari) and two other thugs (Mehdi Koushki of “The Salesman” and Bahram Afshari) loyal to Pasha, and are named Lantouri by the local media. They consider themselves more of a team than a gang, despite their growing reputation on the streets. Some of what they steal goes back to the orphanage Pasha grew up in, but ultimately the group is more unstable than they are altruistic.
Their undoing comes when Pasha becomes obsessed with a local, strong-willed journalist and anti-corporal punishment activist named Maryam (Mayam Palizban), distracting the leader’s focus and pulling his heart away from their anarchist behavior. Allowing Pasha to become consumed by her is Maryan’s mistake and her life is forever changed when he throws acid on her face in an act of “If I can’t have you, no one will”, leaving her blind and scarred for life. What transpires after this horrific act offers a revealing look at the hypocrisy of the authorities and the confusing response of the public who clamor for Maryam to forgive Pasha. She’s told there’s a special place in heaven for the courage to forgive such an unforgivable attack, but the situation gets even more complicated when Maryam pursues her legal right of “an eye for an eye” or “lex talionis”, which is exactly the kind of retaliation against the jailed Pasha it sounds like.
That horrific act doesn’t occur until well into the third act of “Lantouri”, so I find it odd that the film’s IMDb page glibly describes it as “A Girl is attacked by her lover with Acids” which is almost like giving away a major plot twist. Acid attacks on women are unfortunately commonplace in Iran, so maybe there’s a desire to draw those who are already aware of what’s transpired there for years by such a description, but it undermines all the effort Dormishian and his crew invest in the film leading up to the attack. In fact, I found my knowledge that an acid attack was around the corner somewhat distracting, which is a shame since the storytelling approach is unique here.
“Lantouri” is populated with a cast of ballsy, committed actors, who command our attention and draw us in close with their intensity and unpredictability. Everyone on the team is interesting, but Mohammadzadeh and Palizban and understandably compelling as Pasha and Maryam. They are polar opposites, yet somehow there is a magnetism when they are together and that’s due to the actors, not the characters. We know these two characters shouldn’t be together – he’s volatile and unreliable and she is cold and confusing to read – but we also know of the tragedy that will soon befall them. The two actors make the most of the build-up to the inevitable.
Throughout the film, there are moments where editor Hayed Safiyah (who’s worked with Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi on his recent films) takes cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani’s footage and spits it out in rapid-fire fashion, like that of an old camera shutter, zooming in on certain characters and their surroundings. This, combined with Dormishian’s bracing aesthetic and exhilarating style, makes “Lantouri” a bold, confidant and at times, overwhelming feature in many ways.
I became aware of acid attacks and their prevalence in the Middle East back in 2012 after watching the Oscar-nominated documentary short “Saving Face” from HBO. It’s about a plastic surgeon who returns to his native Pakistan to help women horribly scarred by acid attacks. I’d wager the storyline that involves the acid attack in “Lantouri” must have been based on a true story – sadly, there’s plenty to choose from.
NOTE: “Lantouri” is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center during the opening weekend of the 27th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, an annual festival that takes place each February at the Chicago theater. Tickets can be purchased here.