Jafar Panahi’s latest film, 3 Faces, which is screening as part of the 56th New York Film Festival main slate, is another audacious triumph from a director who has confirmed his place as one of the most important filmmakers of the 21st century. Following his 2010 arrest and subsequent 20-year ban on filmmaking, 3 Faces marks the Iranian filmmaker’s fourth feature to be made without government authorization. After the lauded This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013) and Taxi (2015), 3 Faces emerges as both a culmination and farewell to the strictures within which Panahi has flexed and maneuvered his cinematic vision over the last eight years. The film serves as an exemplary piece from which to reflect upon the continued political pertinence and cinematic innovation of Panahi’s filmmaking.
As a collection, the post-ban films play out as an extended experiment in the possibilities of viable filmmaking under extreme censorship restriction. They are a visual embodiment of lived frustration, uncertainty, confusion, and distrust. In This Is Not a Film, his first feature to be made under the ban,Panahi openly grapples with the fears and frustrations of working under such enclosed and restrictive conditions. During the course of the film he is coaxed by fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to continue filming on his iPhone, despite Panahi’s dismay at the low-grade quality of the image. With each proceeding film we see Panahi offer up the smartphone and other low-grade digital devices to the various characters that populate his work—the elusive female character in Closed Curtain, his own niece in Taxi, the young female subject of 3 Faces—as an alternative means of self-expression and empowerment. Panahi has found a method to give form and vision to his work within the systems of oppression that attempt to obscure his art, and in doing so has developed a truly distinctive and innovative style of 21st century filmmaking.
A master of filmic form and a celebrated champion of the Iranian New Wave before his arrest, Panahi’s post-ban films have emerged as a unique body of work unto themselves. Marked by a self-reflexive style that has its roots in the New Wave movement, the post-ban films frequently elude straightforward sense-making and move toward a repeated, formal dissolution. Stories begin as one thing and then change, shift or disappear entirely. Panahi explores the impact of oppression through a collapse in narrative cohesion, in which form and content become symbolically enmeshed. The viewer is routinely confounded, even thwarted, by the meandering and comically elusive entanglement of fiction and non-fiction strategies that weave a complex tapestry of reflection upon the impact of censorship on the filmmaking process.
The challenge and pleasure of watching Panahi’s films are one and the same. The viewer must succumb to the playful stops and starts, the protracted, observational asides, the profound and frequently absurd symbolism of his work, and in so doing will be rewarded with some of the most visceral and poignant declarations of artistic survival and celebration in recent cinema. His cinematic style and the thematic cues of the post-ban films are so rigorous and precise that they emerge like a leitmotif throughout his work. Those familiar with his canon will find an echo chamber of allusions, dialogue and narrative iteration in the always measured, almost sleepy pace and banal minutiae of Panahi’s filmmaking. In 3 Faces we experience a poignant culmination of the style and thematics that have come to define his recent films; the recurrent use of smartphones as primary filming devices; the playful intermingling of fiction and nonfiction storytelling; and the profound and tangible evocation of oppression and perseverance. 3 Faces firmly takes its place amongst this masterful collection as a vibrant rebirth of Panahi’s cinematic vision and suggests the new directions in which his work may be moving.
The filmopens on a narrow, grainy image of a young woman filming herself on a smartphone. It is a suicide note for the 21st century: an adolescent girl shoots a selfie video addressed to a famous Iranian actress, Behnaz Jafari, before she kills herself. The image is at once universal and timely—the medium (of digital technology) and the message (of oppression)—but it is also immediately identifiable with Panahi’s unique aesthetic. Such is the singular vision and style of Panahi’s recent work. Set in an Azerbaijani village in rural, northwestern Iran, 3 Faces is the first of the post-ban films to be shot predominantly outdoors, beyond the confines of the houses and cars that served as necessary settings for the previous films. The feeling of cinematic freedom is palpable. The undulating landscape of the village’s surrounding fields evokes the broadened scope of Panahi’s visual aesthetic, with Amin Jafari’s cinematography lending a richer depth of field and spatial fluidity than was afforded by the limited settings of the earlier films.
Here, Panahi ventures for the first time since his arrest to film in the Iranian countryside. Although Closed Curtain is set in a holiday home, with the Caspian Sea as a backdrop, the camera never physically leaves the walled confines of the house. In 3 Faces we are offered the most spatially expansive and aesthetically beautiful milieu of the post-ban canon. In this respect, the film feels very different from its predecessors. Its surfaces are bequeathed with the expansive blues and navies of the sky’s changing light; the winding dirt roads roll away into a dusty, unknown distance; all around are the far reaching, overhanging branches of leafy trees. Although the narrative centers around complex issues of oppression and misogyny, 3 Faces is the most visually beautiful and free-feeling work Panahi has produced in many years.
The film also suggests thatPanahi’s thematic vision is shifting resolutely outward; although he features as a significant character within the film, he is no longer positioned as the narrative and discursive focal point of the story. In his latest, Panahi transposes the topic of repression from his own personal life onto that of three women—the three faces of the film’s title. They represent three generations of female Iranian artists suffering under the traditional mores that govern their culture. There is firstly Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), the subject and director of the film’s opening video, whose suicide attempt is sparked by her community’s admonishing of her desire to attend the drama conservatory in Tehran. Then there is Behnaz Jafari (Behnaz Jafari), the renowned actress and addressee of Marziyeh’s video, and Shahzred, a legendary Iranian actress whose real name is Kobra Saeedi and whose face we never actually see in the film, although her presence is made palpable throughout. In typical Panahi-style, each of the women go by their real name, as does Panahi himself. He draws with empathy and humility the women’s struggle for equality and artistic self-determination. Positioned as a bystander on the margins of the film’s action, Panahi tacitly observes from behind the car windscreen, or from an isolated hilltop, as these women negotiate the terms of their own freedom, which implicitly reflects back upon his own artistic limitations.
3 Faces begins as a journey in which Jafari and Panahi drive to a remote, Azeri-speaking village—where his own parents and grandparents were born—in search of Marziyeh, uncertain as to whether her suicide is real or staged. Jafari searches for the cut at the point in the video where Marziyeh appears to hang herself; unable to find the edit that would prove the video is a fake, Jafari fears for the worst and goes in search of the girl. On arriving at the village, 3 Faces quickly becomes a portraiture of a people, exploring with nuance and humour the conflicting values and hypocrisy of Iran writ small. Panahi depicts the village with a comic affection; remarkably, his eye is both deeply critical and gently unjudging. A series of interactions with people from the village offers frequently absurd and mysterious conversational meanderings, and there is a folkloric, even mythic, quality to the film’s mise en scène.
In many ways, 3 Faces offers Panahi’s most structured plot of late, although the film is in equal measure sprawling and complex. While the exploration of oppression finds new light in the characters of the three women, it also harkens back to earlier films such as Offside (2006), the last feature Panahi made before his arrest, in which the issue of female inequality takes center stage. The new film’s rural setting, imbued as it is with an elusive mysticism, is also strongly evocative of the work of fellow master Abbas Kiarostami. In this respect, 3 Faces embraces something that is at once new and nostalgic. Those both familiar and unacquainted with Iranian cinema will find respective pleasure in the reflexive intricacies and spontaneous originality of the film.
Ironically, in a village which bears all the claustrophobic weight of traditionalism and isolation, Panahi has made his most spacious and breathable film yet. 3 Faces represents an insistent and celebratory sea-change in the potential scope and shape of Panahi’s future filmmaking. It is the first of the post-ban films to name all cast and crew members in a full credit sequence at the film’s end, and this alone is something to be celebrated.