By Adam Nayman
Many years ago, I sat down for a festival screening of an Iranian film next to another local Toronto critic whose pugnacious reputation preceded him. Unsolicited and not-so-rhetorically, he asked me if the long scenes of rural driving native to so many of that country’s arthouse exports were—and here I am quoting from memory—somehow equivalent to the action scenes in Hollywood releases. It wasn’t a serious question, of course, just a bit of sarcastic saber-rattling before the lights went down. But it’s stayed with me, partially because it was one of the last times I spoke to the critic in question, and partially because it’s a good way into the relationship between national cinemas and their various archetypes and clichés—as well as the clichés writers bring to and impose so predictably and at great disservice to work whose resonance extends so far beyond them.
The film we were watching back then was, I think, set mostly in a prison, so there wasn’t much driving. But there is a lot of driving—as well as automotive down time—in Panah Panahi’s lovely debut feature Hit the Road, which unfolds mostly in the space of an SUV being piloted across a series of arid Iranian desert highways en route to the Turkish border. There, college-age misfit Farid (Amin Simiar), who spends the majority of his time in the driver’s seat, will be met and smuggled out of the country to avoid mandatory military service. His departure is being brokered, at considerable risk and expense, by his father (Hasan Majuni) and mother (Pantea Panahiha), secular and vaguely oppositional types whose love for their eldest son is unequivocal but subdued, especially in contrast to their affection for his seven-year-old brother (Rayan Sarlak). The boy, variably nicknamed “Little Fart,” “Monkey the Second,” and “Shithead,” is the recipient of exactly as much attention as he wants and tries to get, which is a lot, all the time. The tension between the decision to let one son go while holding the other one close goes unspoken, and pressurizes Panahi’s deceptively slight, wholly absorbing family comedy from start to finish.
When Hit the Road premiered in the Quinzaine last year, much was inevitably made of Panahi’s familial and professional relationships to a pair of all-time-great filmmakers: his father, Jafar Panahi, and Abbas Kiarostami, with whom he worked as an apprentice. There’s surely something to be said about the mutual aesthetic and political influence of these directors on Panahi’s debut—comparisons that, followed too closely, might tailgate us down the dirt road of critical cliché. But Panahi the Second’s style is very much his own, rooted in an observational, real-time realism open equally to portraiture, torpor, and deadpan visual slapstick, but also elastic enough to permit magic-realist flourishes, like an unexpected and contextually clever homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). One of the film’s more unexpected thematic throughlines is in fact the evocation of blockbuster Hollywood product, stretching from Stanley Kubrick to Christopher Nolan, whose Batman Begins (2005) gets name-checked when one of the refugee-smugglers drives up to the family vehicle with his face swathed in a frightening sheepskin mask; from offscreen, he hears Monkey in the backseat asking if the guy is the Scarecrow.
Monkey is a smart kid who picks up on everything going on around him (“When people say something is ‘last-gasp’ in a movie,” he says, “it means something bad is about to happen”). But he’s oblivious to the true purpose of his clan’s journey, and Panahi wrings consistent, bittersweet comedy from his parents’ attempts to keep him that way, whether through deflection, distraction, or outright denial. The tight-lipped particulars of the trip permit the filmmaker to keep exposition to a minimum while pumping subtext into every single picaresque encounter. As the film opens, mother is paranoid that their caravan is being followed, but it turns out it’s just a good samaritan who’s noticed they’re leaking air-conditioning fluid. A hilarious run-in with a cyclist—literally, our heroes run into him with their car, and offer his bruised body a ride in the aftermath—snakes its way through throwaway jokes about Lance Armstrong and “fake news” en route to a philosophical disquisition on ethics. A shaggy, truculent survivor who’s been symbolically hobbled by a broken leg—leaving him too enfeebled to take the wheel on his own mission—Majuni’s patriarch monologues earnestly about honesty and goodness as absolutes even as he’s in the process of breaking the law. Later, we see he’s stowing away a cellphone deep inside his leg cast—a violation of the same self-imposed, cautionary protocols that led him to castigate his younger son earlier in the film, and one image among many that draws a bead on the governing theme of carefully suppressed communication.
A more mawkish or overtly political movie than Hit the Road might have thrown more severe or dangerous obstacles in the characters’ way than Panahi musters up. His restraint in this regard is admirable. The twin spectres of potential war and perpetual authoritarianism—and the relationship of one to the other—are present enough in the film’stexture without explicit reference, and Panahi is smart enough to see the comedy, pathos, and resonance endemic to tiny interpersonal moments, which in turn elides the need for more melodramatic engineering. Not all of his structuring devices are created equal: dad’s broken leg and mom’s smiling-through-tears lip-synching of vintage pop songs work; the running death watch on the family’s mostly immobile, broken-down dog skirts neorealist cliché (although there’s a priceless bit of staging involving the animal and a plastic chair). If the scripted dialogue doesn’t always exactly feel spontaneous, it’s convincing insofar as we’re supposed to be watching smart, stressed-out people talking around their feelings. The performances are consistently beyond reproach as well; the cliché of Iranian filmmakers having the miraculous ability to direct children proves true in this case, with Sarlak nailing every squirmy, jelly-limbed outburst and fully and nobly inhabiting the late observation by his onscreen father that his character is “a wacko.”
Like most road movies, Hit the Road has a couple of dead spots here and there. It also has one or two too many endings, none of which top its unofficial—and in retrospect, smartly disguised—climax, in which a seemingly temporary moment of parting is shot at an epic distance, a trick of physical and emotional scaling that could just as easily be indebted to the Kubrick of Barry Lyndon (1975) as the Kiarostami of The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). At one point in the film, Farid’s mother chides him for smoking too much and then adds that he tends to mainline cigarettes while watching movies, the point being that he shouldn’t watch so many movies. It’s a line that slyly points up the sustaining nature of Panahi’s own cinephilia, which may well be his birthright but also feels like something he’s expressing on his own. Hit the Road works in enough familiar ways that critics can safely place it within a certain tradition. But it’s also hopefully the start of something new.
Iran, Panah Panahi