SANAM (Rafi Pitts, 2000)

An elliptical parable with something of the force and beauty of Ford and Fernández’s The Fugitive (1947), but with more political punch, Rafi Pitts’s Sanam, from Iran, proceeds at a solemn pace, through deceptively quiet, seemingly half-submerged emotional territory, to a haunting, incendiary finish. It won for Pitts best film prizes at Paris, Vesoul, Valencia, and Mannheim-Heidelberg.

The title refers to a widow whose husband was shot to death by a self-appointed posse claiming he was a horse thief: a scene we witness in long-shot—the deadly shots we only hear—in a vast rural valley, correlative to the vantage of the one witness besides us: the victim’s, and Sanam’s, ten-year-old son, Issa. The boy knows that the horse in question, Jeyran (suggesting Iran), was his father’s, and Sanam struggles to impress authorities with the fact that her husband was reclaiming the horse that had been stolen from him. However, Sanam hasn’t a ghost of a chance: the matter won’t be investigated; the thieving assassins won’t be brought to justice. The new “owner” of the horse is a landowner, whereas Sanam is poor, as was her deceased spouse. Moreover, Sanam is making a claim against men in a stiffly patriarchal society.

Meanwhile, Issa is a child; he also isn’t listened to, by peers or the elderly shepherd, entrusted with his daytime care, who frustrates the boy with his blind insistence that Issa’s father was a worthless thief. Eventually, Issa reclaims Jeyran and is pursued, in long-shot, and is shot—we hear the shots—like his father. Peasants burn the landowner’s field. Someday, perhaps soon, Iran will be theirs.

Gorgeously and dustily photographed by Farhad Saba, Pitts’s film exudes an unsettled, and unsettling, atmosphere; dusk turns to daylight in the wink of an eye.

Brave; subversive; terrific.

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