While not so great as it insists it is throughout (the filmmaking is rudimentary and rife with visual clichés), Dariush Mehrjui’s Derakhte Golabi is a lovely thing that culminates in one of the most haunting series of shots imaginable. Mahmoud, a writer, sits under a pear tree on the grounds of his ancestral estate, where he grew up. It is night—midnight or dawn, Mahmoud’s voiceover confesses, he isn’t sure. The camera rises, mindfully, to find Mahmoud at twelve perched in high branches. Mahmoud the boy is engrossed by a spider’s patient knitting of its delicate web. It is Iran’s future—a fragile symbol of the grown Mahmoud’s abiding hope for his country.
The film begins in the present, with Mahmoud frustrated as he attempts to write his latest book; this writer’s block has been going on now for years, prompting this retreat. As he tries to write, his efforts are interrupted by the family gardener, who prattles on about a singular pear tree in the orchard that hasn’t “fructified” for years now and needs to be talked to, perhaps punished, by the master—Mahmoud, that is. It, too, apparently, has a tree’s own version of writer’s block.
The old man, who had been the gardener way back in Mahmoud’s youth, won’t let go of the author, setting Mahmoud’s mind adrift into the past when Mahmoud was twelve and in love with “M,” who moves to France with her family for political reasons. Before she departs, Mahmoud pledges to her his undying love and promises to join her as soon as he is old enough. But politics intervene and Mahmoud leaves unanswered (and mostly unread) the stream of letters “M” writes to him. Two years before the Islamic Revolution, an incendiary Mahmoud is jailed, whereupon he learns from a cell-mate, who is related to “M,” that she has died. Mahmoud had hoped to become famous before rejoining her, he tells himself; all his revolutionary hopes for Iran similarly fail to pan out.
The gardener is (perhaps) real, a remnant of Iranian class-consciousness epitomizing the passage of time. But bits of conscience, figments of Mahmoud’s imagination, also interrupt his quiet and solitude, questioning the meaning of his books and his commitment to his former idealism. They take the form of carping university students of his.
This is a film of lyrical dissolves and lost resolves, of subjective tracking shots underneath orchard trees where we hear Mahmoud’s footsteps as he journeys into the past to discover why one special tree, which he identifies with “M” and Iran, still nourishes his soul despite bearing no observable fruit.
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