In the course of writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof’s Keshtzarhaye Sepid, the boatman Rahmat visits five islands off Lake Urmia in Iran, the third largest saltwater lake on Earth. Each of the islands is composed of salt, which has banished all growing greenery (trees, grass, all other plants) and drained inhabitants of vitality and, perhaps, hope; thus they cling all the harder to their primitive superstitions and rituals. On one of the islands, for instance, a virginal “bride” is “wed” to the sea—that is to say, drowned—as a sacrifice to the gods in hopes of ending the long drought. An ambiguous figure, Rahmat tells the girl as she is taken away to her death that she is going to a “nice place.” This lame, really absurd consolation is in response to the girl’s agonized pleas for him to save her. “I don’t want to be a bride!” she shouts and sobs.
What precisely does Rahmat do on these islands? He collects In a glass jar the tears of mourners and the otherwise miserable. This, presumably, is meant to ameliorate folks’ pain, perhaps even absolve them of whatever sins they have committed that has brought the judgment of saltiness on their land, stunting their lives. Actually, they let Rahmat do what he has done for 30 years without their knowing why he is doing it. The myth has thus evolved that Rahmat is a sorcerer who can turn their tears into pearls. Locked into poverty, some of them thus imagine that Rahmat can free them from their hopeless condition by bringing them wealth. But he never does.
From one of the white salt islands, a teenaged boy stows away on Rahmat’s rowboat, hoping that the tear gatherer’s routine rounds of travel will help him find his father, a former shepherd who picked up and left his family to fend for themselves. Indeed, without either of them knowing it (only we do), they come together on another island, a prison, where his father, it is suggested, is the lonely warden who, in fact, is instrumental in the boy’s death, The boy is already half-dead when he comes to the island from the communal stoning he has received for interfering with the sacrifice of the reluctant young “bride” already noted. He is punished, then, for his decency and his hopeful youth. (These qualities of decency and hopefulness are also reflected in his search for the father who abandoned him.) He is shackled on the ground and left to die overnight.
The boy is not alone; someone else is put in shackles—one, not stoned, who does not die. When we first see him, he is buried in salt up to his head. What offense has he committed? An artist, he has painted the sea red, which is how he “sees” it; he will gain his freedom only if he cedes to orthodoxy and pledges to paint the sea blue. Because he won’t do this, he is variously tortured by the warden to encourage his compliance. The poor artist is forced to climb a ladder and stare at the sun in the hope that blindness will cure him of his misidentification of the sea’s color; toward the same end, monkey urine is poured into his eyes. This, symbolically, suggests the fate of artists in Iran. Indeed, the whole film is an allegory of current oppressive conditions in Iran, including religious extremism and official intolerance of those who raise a “different” voice. In a mirror-imaging, during that fatal night both the boy and the artist are laid on the ground, shackled, feet to feet; the one who dies thus represents the constant threat that the one who survives is under. At the same time, that the boy who dies may be the warden’s own son represents the legacy of grief, beyond imagining, awaiting to pounce.
Much of the press attending the film has focused on the filmmaker’s own legal difficulties. For “propagandizing against the [Ahmadinejad] regime,” fraudulently re-elected in 2009, Rasoulof was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and was prohibited from writing scripts and making films for twenty years. As in the case of compatriot-filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who received the same sentence, this means house arrest until the ax falls.
Panahi, incidentally, edited The White Meadows, and his contribution, in conjunction with that of Ebrahim Ghafori, Samira Makhmalbaf’s great color cinematographer, elevates the film considerably—or at least the impression that the film makes. Closeups of the (mostly) miserable faces of villagers alternate with gorgeous, otherworldly long-shots, usually of the glistening land, but also of other sights: for instance, in one of the film’s loveliest shots, the carrying out of its “bride” farther and farther into the sea, amidst fires floating on the water. In this case, as with the salt-sand that has choked the life out of the land, what seems eternally beautiful may also be poisonous.
In a way, the tear-gatherer is also an example of this. His collection completed until the next time, he retreats to a privileged, lushly green community, where the reappearance of a certain character encapsulates Rasoulof’s bold indictment of Iranian leadership and officialdom. Rahmat’s “true” nature is disclosed when he returns the salty tears he has collected to the sea, symbolically sealing the environmental fate of the miserable islanders and perpetuating their poverty. Throughout the film, however, Rahmat’s compassionate eyes imply that his participation in human suffering is not rooted in malice; instead, he is the helpless, powerless instrument of a malicious fate—symbolically, Iran’s power structure. Buttressing this interpretation is Rahmat’s remark, “Tears should be treated with respect” (emphasis added).
Because of its real-world political underpinnings and protest, Rasoulof’s film has been widely anointed a masterpiece. It is not that. Although visually stunning and mysterious, it is a bore, its episodes schematic and, at times, close to ridiculous, its symbols and allegory (much) more literary than cinematic and whipping back and forth between blatancy and needless obscurity. I, for one, found the film incredibly amateurish and self-congratulatory.
Hasan Pourshirazi, who plays Rahmat, won as best actor at Dubai, where Rasoulof also won the Asia-Africa Special Jury Prize for best film. In the U.S. Rasoulof won the best film prize at Denver.
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