An Old-New Film from an Old-New Wave: Mohammad Reza Aslani’s "Chess of the Wind"

Found in a thrift shop and restored, this long-lost drama of greed and murder reveals a different direction Iranian cinema could have gone.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

“I watched a very bad print of my father’s Shatranj-e-Baad [Chess of the Wind] when I was 12 and I remember watching Cries and Whispers. We didn’t have a TV but we had a VHS player,” Iranian filmmaker Amin Aslani told me over Zoom when I asked about his childhood during a conversation on Chess of the Wind (1976), the long-lost feature debut of his father, Mohammed Reza Aslani. “You can imagine what it’s like to be 12 and watching the films without understanding any word, seeing all these scary images. So psychologically, I don't know what happened to us.” Mohammad Reza Aslani and his wife, Soudabeh Fazaeli were poets of the Iranian New Wave, both members of the She'er-e-Digar and Nathr-e-Digar literary movements. “Growing up with parents like them, it's like not living on earth. It was like living on the moon or another planet,” added Gita Aslani Shahrestani, academic and Mohammad Reza Aslani’s daughter.

In 2014, Amin Aslani was visiting a thrift store outside of Tehran, looking for vintage props for the film he was making, when he found some film reels lying behind a curtain. It was his father’s 1976 film Chess of the Wind. “I was shaking,” he recounted. He bought them over to his father having bought the reels for very little. After Mohammad Reza Aslani made sure the reels were indeed of his film, he sent them across to his daughter in France because film has been prohibited in Iran since 1979. Aslani Shahrestani contacted the Cineteca di Bologna and they contacted The Film Foundation who, with the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, raised the money for the film’s restoration. A new 4K restoration of Chess of the Wind is now being released for American audiences.

Chess of the Wind

There is a pervading sense of claustrophobia in most of Chess of the Wind. A crumbling mansion, laden with rugs and ornate tapestry, reeks of old money. Atop a grand wooden staircase, a perpetually ill Lady Aghdas (Fakhri Khorvash) moves around in her wheelchair, plotting ways of getting rid of her stepfather Hadji Amoo (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz), who her mother had married before dying under suspicious circumstances. Dogged in her resolve to not let the family wealth be usurped by Hadji Amoo, Lady Aghdas plots a muder with her double-crossing maid (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and a shady suitor who wants to inherit all the money and start importing wine into the country. What unfolds is a telling of an Agatha Christie-like plot, replete with love, betrayal, and cunning. With undertones of homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and greed, Aslani’s narrative shows us the inner rot that was eating away at the insides Iran’s rich, an obvious critique of the Pahlavi regime’s royalist government but also of the bland ways in which filmmakers constructed their stories in contemporary Iran.

In contrast to the expansive landscapes we often see in Iranian films, the cinematographer Houshang Baharlou frames his shots tightly around Houri Etesam’s sets, adding to an uncomfortable claustrophobia even with the decadent mansion. The camera lingers on the characters’ hands as they serve food, eat, and load a pistol. Every frame is meticulously designed, the emotions heightened by the music of Sheida Gharachedaghi, who was one Iran’s first female avant-garde composers. For Chess of the Wind, she used folk music from southern parts of Iran. The scholar Hamid Dabashi had once said of the cultural modernity brought forth by the Iraninan New Wave that “the visual possibility of seeing the historical person (as opposed to the eternal Qur'anic man) on screen is arguably the single most important event allowing Iranians access to modernity.” It is of significance that Gharachedaghi’s music harks back to Iran’s pre-Islamic mourning ritual music that traces much of its origins to Egypt and Greece, thereby situating the score (and the film) within a specific historicity. “He [Mohammad Reza Aslani] wanted that kind of atonal music so it gives you the feeling of a horror film,” said Amin Aslani. The sound design, complete with ghastly howls of foxes and dogs, experiments with non-diegetic sound. The only time we see glimpses of the outside world, it is through the many servants of the house. We see them enjoy a musical performance of travelling musicians. The maids gather around a pond outside the mansion, their gossiping chatter intercuts one another and is overlaid on long shots of them washing clothes. “The architecture, the music had to be independent parts of the film. Not a vessel that enhances the action of characters. They had to be characters themselves,” added Mohammad Reza Aslani, who is now 77.

Chess of the W ind

“Of course he was a part of the Iranian New Wave but specifically, his was a kind of avant-garde cinema in Iran, which is not very well-known in the West. It’s a different style and a different cinematographic movement,” explained Aslani Shahrestani. Reza Aslani’s cinephilia was born in the Cinematheque of Tehran, where he was taken in by German Expressionism. “There he understood that the cinema is a kind of painting. That he can make a painting, write poetry with cinema and bring a new language,” continued Aslani Shahrestani. It is of no surprise, therefore, when Chess of the Wind’s candle-lit shadow play; outlandish, nightmarish sets; and its portrayal of human angst is reminiscent of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This taste extends to today’s cinema. “I liked Roy Andersson’s Songs on the Second Floor. He pushes the boundaries of the cinematic language and creates a dialectic between the photographic image (which is the past) and the moving image (which is the future). He brings together the past and future in the present,” Mohammad Reza Aslani answered when I asked him of his favorite contemporary filmmaker. “I am also aware of the Indian avant-garde movement. I like the films of Amit Dutta,” he added when I told him I grew up in India.

In Iran, there is either the Hollywood-inspired commercial cinema or the social cinema that the West has grown to associate with Iran—realistic, documentary storytelling; children protagonists; focus on the lower and middle class. Mohammad Reza Aslani’s films upturn all those conventions and create an auteurist aesthetic that never got imported into the West as a stand-in for all of Iran’s cinema. Since Chess of the Wind, ​​Mohammad Reza Aslani has been making documentaries, TV series, writing screenplays and poetry—all the while watching a very different aesthetic being theorized as Iranian film characteristics. “I defended myself all these years with my silence,” he said, “One has to pay for being a progressive filmmaker especially in Iran. It's a traditional country, not just in terms of being religious but even in its cinematic tastes.” Chess of the Wind first played at the 1976 Tehran International Film Festival and even before the critics watched the film, they decided to give it negative reviews based on what they knew of the filmmaker’s work from his TV series, Samak-e-Ayyar. In the tussle between commercial Iranian cinema and the emergent art cinema, the critics’ loyalties lay with the former. A projector sabotage prevented them from seeing the full film. For the second screening Mohammad Reza Aslani arranged, only three people showed up. The producer, still wanting to attract audiences, decided to re-edit the film. In 1979, with the revolution, the film was banned and assumed lost forever till it reappeared in the thrift shop after the film studio shut up shop with the advent of digital cinema.

As compelling as its backstory is, Chess of the Wind is a glimpse into a world of Iranian cinema we know very little of. The film, in its dirge-like telling, is ultimately a witnessing of the passing of an age marked by the greed and riches of the bourgeoisie. At the end of the film, Lady Aghdas’ maid forces open the heavy doors of the mansion and lets the light in. With the old world order gone, we see lengthy shots of the world outside—an emergent contemporary Iran. Mohammad Reza Aslani collapses the linearity of time and walks us through as a whole new world opens up and we are lucky enough to witness its miraculous discovery.

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