3 Faces (Se rokh)

Iran (2018) Dir. Jafar Panahi

People talk about the wonders of the world, like the Great Pyramid of Giza or Temple of Artemis but surely, there should be consideration for the fact that despite receiving a 20-year ban from filmmaking and being put under house arrest by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi is STILL making films!

3 Faces is Panahi’s fourth film under this ban and like his previous film Tehran Taxi, sees him play himself as he is out and about on a drive, meaning somebody isn’t guarding the doors to his house too well. The plot is therefore straightforward if typically beguiling for a Panahi film, making for a less cynical outing than usual but still quietly probing.

Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari (playing herself) walks off the set of her latest film from being troubled by a video sent to her from a young girl, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei). In it, Marziyeh complains how her family refuse to let her study to become an actress, with the clip ending with her apparent suicide. Jafari persuades Panahi to drive her to Marziyeh’s rural mountainous village to verify the suicide is real.  

Taking the form of a minimalist road trip, 3 Faces explores the how bifurcated Iran has become between those hidebound to stringent Islamic teaching in rural settings and the comparatively more relaxed attitudes of the capital. But this culture clash doesn’t explain the title which actually refers to the conceit of the story, women in entertainment.

Face number one is Behnaz Jafar, a popular actress in Iran straddling two generations of her trade; number two is Marziyeh, an admirer of Jafar’s, hoping her status is enough to help her achieve her dreams; finally the third face is a legendary actress from before the revolution who has been hounded into retirement and reclusion for the heinous sin of being an entertainer.

A shocking as this sounds to us, this mentality is alive and well in the dusty wastelands of rural Iran, that are so far removed from the cultivated world of urbanity that many only speak Turkish and not Persian, just another struggle Panahi and Jafar are forced to contend with. Luckily, Panahi can speak enough Turkish to hold a conversation but Jafar is ignorant of this language, though enough people also speak Persian to make it easier for her.

Panahi is known for his trenchant dissertations on modern political oppression, so a shift to standing up for his chosen profession makes a welcome change though it is arguable the lack of bite and covert confrontation will feel water down in comparison to Panahi’s other works. It is certainly a calmer film, with very little in the way of impassioned rants and direct conflict, coming across as though Panahi isn’t quite sure what he is supposed to be rebelling against.

Not that there isn’t plenty of ire to be offloaded, but with one notable exception, nobody is demonstrably angry enough to been viewed as a singular antagonist, this role instead assumed by the general attitudes of the villagers. We may not be able to understand but to these people entertainers have no value, despite many of them cooing over Jafar and talking about how they watch her on TV, speaking with extraordinarily detailed recall of some of her roles for people who refuse to recognise acting as a career.

When Jafar and Panahi finally arrive at Marziyeh’s village, they are mobbed with fervour and warmth – until learning they are not there to “help” with village problems, and the mob disperses in disgust. I’m not sure what the villagers were expecting their visitors to do about the lack of doctors etc. unless they have been conditioned to believe celebrities are as powerful as politicians, which some celebs like to think they are.

But this isn’t necessarily a universal opinion, since the reclusive veteran – who has also turned her back on the industry – is still adored by some, whilst one old man recalls an interesting and rather esoteric way in which his appreciation for an old time male actor has helped his fertility. Relax, this is more to do with their religious superstitions than any direct libidinous influence, given the story a quirky charm despite its naivety.

Usually, the onscreen Panahi adopts the contrary voice in a discussion to defend the issue at hand but in this instance, he is forced into silence by the any showbiz rhetoric of the elder villagers disgusted at Marziyeh for wanting to entertain. Her own brother is one of these people, yet ironically, the lone dissenter in her family, but with their more opened minded father away, Marziyeh is forced to hide in fear from this proxy patriarch.

Panahi is very much a calming presence in the film from actually being calm, whilst Jafar seems almost schizophrenic, shifting moods from frantic paranoia to gracious movie star as the scenario dictates. This isn’t as calculated as it sounds, more a sign of someone with experience in separating her public and private persona when necessary, and with this bunch of hicks, it makes her stay at the village less stressful.

Aside, from Marziyeh Rezaei, a photogenic lass with clear potential, the support cast is largely made up of non-professional actors and it shows in many cases, but as ever, Panahi is going for authenticity which is found in these performances. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually believed what they said, such is the conviction of their delivery devoid of any scripted artifice.

3 Faces may be Panahi at his most restrained and non-confrontational compared to his other films but make no mistake, he is still championing the oppressed, and challenging the archaic attitudes and conventions of his country, the difference is in his choice of topic. It’s not as Meta as it could have been with the ubiquitous filmmaking slant to it but this lessens the risk of self-indulgence, allowing the story, even with its baffling ending, to hit home.