By Liam Lacey
A teen-aged girl, (Marziyeh Rezaei), in the mouth of a cave in a remote Iranian village, is on her phone. She is about to hang herself and she is sending a message to a well-known television actress, Behnaz Jafari, explaining the cause of her despair. She wanted to go to acting school but her family wanted to marry her off instead; in despair, she is ending her life.
The real-life Jafari, with flaming dyed red hair peeking out from under her scarf, along with her director friend Jafar Panahi (the director, playing himself), drive to the girl's mountain village to investigate. Jafari harbours a suspicion that the video was faked ("If she's dead, how could she send this?"). Panahi, the director evaluates the quality of the shooting and editing. They have enough real concern for the girl's well-being to halt their shooting schedule back in Tehran until they've learned more.
The suicide message, it turns out, is something of a tease and the explanation of the mysterious video message is solved before the film is half over. Then, 3 Faces turns into something else, a kind of meandering black comedy narrative that probes into Iran's traditional culture with a mixture of humour and anguish.
In some respects, one could almost imagine an American remake: A liberal movie director and popular TV star head deep into the Appalachian Trump country, in a fish-out-of-water political comedy. But in the case of Jafar Panahi, one of the most celebrated Iranian directors of the past 25 years, the context is decidedly more personal.
Eight years ago, he was officially banned from making films for twenty years. Since then, at risk of liberty and possibly life, he has gone ahead and made four of them -- This Is Not A Film, Closed Curtain, Taxi, and now, 3 Faces. He has created a new on-the-run shooting style and explored the absurdity of his own predicament. At the same time, his films continue themes of his earlier work (The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside), dramas about "restriction, limitation, confinement and boundaries" that blend obvious metaphors and a documentary immediacy.
On the concrete side, the village is set in northwest part of Iran, near Turkey and Azerbaijan, where Panahi was raised. In the film, he serves as a translator from the local Turkish and Azeri dialects to Farsi, for his actress friend. There's a real-time haphazardness to events: The villagers mistake Panahi for a bureaucrat coming to fix their electricity problems and are annoyed that he can't. But they're pleased to have a celebrity, Jafari, in their midst and want to know spoilers on the TV series Jafari is working on. How does it end? " "Same as always,” she sighs. “Tears and mourning.”
On the poetic, allusive side, 3 Facesis partly an homage to the late Iranian master, Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016. The setup of filmmakers arriving at a backward village, and the recitation of poetry at the end, echoes The Wind Will Carry Us, while a scene of an old woman who practices sleeping in her grave recalls A Taste of Cherry.
Thematically, Panahi returns to a theme he has addressed before his 2010 arrest, which is the deep misogyny of post-revolutionary Iranian culture. The actress, Jafari, struggles to keep a straight face when an old man insists on giving his son's foreskin to the actress, to pass on to a favourite male actor, as a talisman of sexual vigor.
Then there's an almost too on-the-nose incident of a fatally-injured large bull blocking a narrow mountain road. His owner can't bear to put it down because of its' legendary "golden balls" which once inseminated ten cows in a single night. The farmer promises to send Panahi kebabs made from the bull's testes, if he's ever in need of a stimulant
The more serious story here -- the 3 Faces of the title -- is the struggle of three women, all of whom are actresses, playing parts in a social script that serves them badly. The young woman in the opening phone video, Marziyeh is desperate for freedom. The second is Jafari, the older actress, struggling to maintain her dignity. And the third is an older woman named Shahrazade, a former film star from the pre-revolutionary era. She's introduced late in the film by word of mouth; a recluse who has retired to the edge of the village. Shahrazade has turned her back on the Iranian film industry for its mistreatment of women.
3 Faces ends on a light note but with an unmistakable image of violence -- one of Marziyeh's "dishonoured" male relatives, wielding a fist-sized rock. The character could be an angry ogre from a fairy tale or Elmer Fudd with a shotgun. In the context of Panahi's real predicament, the humour runs dark indeed.
3 faces. Directed and written by Jafar Panahi. Starring: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei, Maedeh Erteghaei, Narges Del Aram. 3 Faces shows at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.