FRONTIER BLUES (Babak Jalali, 2009)

“I like the humour in Kaurismäki, I like the sense of melancholy mixed with humour. If people are in a really messed-up situation, there’s always this lingering hope that something is going to happen any second now. Maybe it never quite does, but the fact that you have that in the back of your head that any second now it’s all going to be all right, I like that. I don’t like when things work out all the time.” — Babak Jalali

Richly deserving of its best film prize from international critics at San Francisco, writer-director Babak Jalali’s Frontier Blues is among the most wonderful comedies in creation—without compromising the unpleasant reality of lives “going nowhere,” and extending rare affection to those occupying these lives, and without a trace of condescension, a comedy whose gentle humors help crystallize much of the essential nature of humanity. The overwhelmingly isolated setting is young Jalali’s birthplace, Gorgan, on Iran’s northern border with Turkmenistan. (Jalali has lived in London since he was eight.) Four somewhat-stories are brilliantly intertwined. (Jalali co-edited with Kambiz Saffari.) The whole thing is drolly enacted by nonprofessionals; their characters, for the most part, are stuck in routines, with occasional bursts of frustration and disappointment, or hopeful of a future that has little chance of materializing. Early on, a bicyclist in front of a fixed camera enters the frame, first from one side and then the other, back and forth, over and over, as the eyes of two men standing nearby follow his activity back and forth, over and over. The film humorously elaborates on this metaphorical scene.

One of the narrative threads involves a young Iranian who, with his donkey, meanders, collecting license plates, sometimes helping out in his uncle’s store. This uncle (played by Jalali’s own uncle) tries selling men’s and boys’ clothes that always happen to be too large for the potential customers trying them on. On one occasion, however, he succeeds with a perfect fit; Alam, a young Turkmen who works on a chicken farm, buys a suit for a special occasion: his ceremonial asking the Iranian girl he has secretly loved to be his wife. He promises her the moon. She looks him up and down and rejects his proposal. What use, now, is his new suit?

Another Turkmen occupies the remaining narrative thread. A combustible minstrel, he is currently escorting, in his rickety truck, a Tehrani photographer out to capture regional sights for a book. The minstrel, stuck in the past, continually bemoans the “kidnapping” thirty years earlier of his wife by a much-better-off dude in a Mercedes Benz. Hilariously, the minstrel, like most reviewers, doesn’t consider the possibility that his wife abandoned him willingly; after all, hadn’t he promised her the moon? Thus, many have missed the connection between the romantic fates of the minstrel and the chicken farm worker: the loosening of the patriarchal grip that has given women a voice in their own destinies. The minstrel’s wife chose a different man; the present-day girl may choose no man at all!

Again, it is Jalali’s immense affection for his characters that helps him achieve one of the greatest film comedies of all time, no matter the degree to which the filmmaker has borrowed the deadpan style of Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki.

 

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