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A Space Odyssey

Mingling grief, fantasy, and humor, Panah Panahi's "Hit the Road" brings its own sensibility to the tradition of the Iranian art cinema.
Peter Kim George
Hit the Road
Early on in a family’s drive across northwest Iran, the father, Khosro (Hassan Madjooni), looks out the window at what used to be the largest lake in the Middle East, Lake Urmia. “Years ago, we would swim in it. Now, you can only have a dust bath.” Except for the unflaggingly effervescent younger son (Rayan Sarlak), the family all carry a similar blank experience that at first seems to come from the fatigue of a family road trip gone on too long. But then we deduce, detail by detail, that their worn expressions instead signal resignation, of worries that have no resolution. Hit The Road is an account of family separation from the older son, 20-year old Farid (Amin Simiar), who has to flee across the Turkish border for an offense for which he was arrested and released on a bail.
We’re never told what Farid’s offense was, but given his interest in film and the six-year prison sentence and twenty-year ban on filmmaking imposed in real life on director Panah Panahi’s venerated father, Jafar Panahi, by the Iranian government in 2010, we can perhaps infer it has something to do with censorship. What makes this forced exile all the more tragic is the parents’ casual acceptance of it, its incontrovertible matter-of-factness, the surreal incongruity between how mundane it is driving across the dusty roads and how dramatic their objective. “I think I’m losing it,” the mother (Pantea Panahiha) says at one point to no one in particular.
As every article including this one will be obliged to mention, Panahi is definitely his father’s son. The charm of the younger child’s obliviousness in Hit The Road is reminiscent of that of the child in The White Balloon (1995). In both films the child serves as a sort of mirror held up to mature, adult society, a world of degrading compromises compared to which childish fancy is more honest and preferable. Jafar Panahi’s two latest films Taxi (2015) and Three Faces (2018), the latter on which Panah also worked, are also road films in which the car interior serves not only as a manageable way of subverting the ban on his filmmaking, but also a way to interact with a cross-section of society. What makes Panah’s filmmaking distinctive in its own right is its sense of yearning, its sehnsucht, which clearly comes across in the film’s many strange or form-breaking moments in which grief mingles with fantasy. “I’m the emperor of the Middle-East and Asia,” Amin mumbles to himself, imagining the car his throne, as Hayedeh’s rendition of Soghati, a song about profound loss, plays—then his mother cuts a portion of his hair at the lines, “The dearest souvenir/Is the dust of your shirt/ I am born again.”
As with Jafar’s films, moments of apparently purposeless banter that happens while people are waiting for something else to happen is where Panah’s debut film shines. The family gives a bicyclist in full spandex a ride after bumping into him on the road. The bicyclist adores Lance Armstrong without reservation, despite his tarnished reputation; the idea of the good, the bicyclist rambles, is a boundary we create between what we allow in our conscious mind versus what we push into the unconscious. What he says has a distinctly Nietzschean quality; it sounds like the basis of the sort of moral drama that another Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi, does to perfection.
Later, the mother, desperate to connect with her son, who she loves but whose interests are perhaps a culture and generation beyond her, asks what is his favorite movie. He responds 2001: A Space Odyssey; describing the film is the only time we see Amin smile, but all his talk of traversing time and space upsets his mother because it reminds her of where they are headed. Meanwhile, Amin’s relationship with his father, with his curmudgeonly sense of humor, is odd and entrancing. Amin’s father seems to identify with his son more than he does connect with him. One can’t help but wonder how much of Panahi’s relationship with his father is present here.
Hit the Road is a testament to how a film can reward the viewer with its attention to the finest detail in dialogue and behavior, to the craft and composure required of a filmmaker to handle subject matter as dramatic as a young man fleeing his own country without resorting to easy sentimentality. Hard as it is to imagine an American independent filmmaker having to flee the country to avoid incarceration, it is just as hard to imagine an American independent filmmaker making their feature debut with as much patience and subtlety as Panahi on the lived experience of state violence. 

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