Thursday 22 July 2010

Heads above water: "Hierro" and "No One Knows About Persian Cats" on DVD

The Spanish are making the boldest genre films in the world right now, and Hierro - "from the producers of Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage", as the cover art will doubtless have it - is at the very least boldly derivative. Gabe Ibáñez's feature debut, written by Javier Gullón, begins as Flightplan al mar, then tosses in elements of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, de Palma-like voyeurism, several recent, high-profile cases involving children, and a yet-unseen trash remake of L'Avventura. If it seems reluctant to let on exactly what kind of film it really is until very late, that feels less a deliberate tactic than a side effect of magpie filmmakers hungrily casting around for other people's ideas.

Single mum Elena Anaya awakens on the ferry carrying her to the island retreat of the title, only to find her little boy has vanished, feared overboard. With no body to hand and the search ongoing, she elects to make the best of her remaining downtime, and so - with her sister - checks into a coastal hotel (proprietor: one Senor Muy Shifty) where her mental state begins to erode like the shoreline under the influence of the tides; sure enough, she finds herself both attracted to and repulsed by the water in which her boy is generally believed to have drowned, which leads to a surprising amount of bathroom-related and sub-aquatic nudity for a 12A-rated feature.

In the very watchable Anaya - whose nubile babysitter was by some considerable distance the sexiest thing about Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia, her eyes dark pools into which this viewer would happily dive - Ibáñez has a willing accomplice, and the money's all up there on the screen, evident in Alejandro Martinez's adept lensing on the craggy, alien landscape of Hierro itself (Europe's most southernly point, geographical trivia-fans), and the cerulean blues the costume department conspire to deck the leading lady in, on those occasions when she does indeed choose to wear clothes.

The best features in this current Iberian renaissance ([REC], Timecrimes, Fermat's Room) did, however, rein themselves in up to a point, and only belatedly spiralled outwards. Hierro is baroque from the get-go, a super slo-mo car crash accompanied by the opening thunderclaps of a generally grandiose score by Zacarias M. de la Riva, a composer whose very name is OTT. The supremacy of style over substance here is such that a pronounced gap swiftly opens up between music, framing, and the prosaic and/or minimal action going on in front of us.

In truth, the film rarely allows itself the time to insinuate itself - as Nakata's similarly aquaphobic chiller most certainly did - and the themes in Gullón's script (principally grief, and animal adaptation to loss) are consequently rendered as somewhat dilute, if not entirely washed away. The work of a director plunging feet first in at the deep end, Hierro has a visual confidence that bodes well for Ibáñez's future projects - but next time round he'd do well to accommodate the slow drip of terror, rather than turning all the taps on at full blast.

No One Knows About Persian Cats, the new film from Bahman Ghobadi, is as much a let's-form-a-band musical as, say, School of Rock or the recent British entry 1,2,3,4 - only it takes place in latter-day Iran, where the issues facing up-and-coming musicians are far greater than arriving at a name that will satisfy the cool police. Our heroes are Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), two young indie kids - influences: Joy Division, Arctic Monkeys, Kafka - trying to finalise their group's line-up for a couple of gigs at festivals in London and Nice. Their immediate (and undoubtedly Kafkaesque) challenge is obtaining the visas that might allow them to travel; the Iranian authorities, it appears, treat their young creatives as unofficial ambassadors, and insist the music they export must in some way be cheerful - as though a nation's youth should be turning out radio jingles for their country.

Negar and Ashkan find their Jack Black figure in Nader (a very funny performance from Hamed Behdad), a bearded DVD pirate with a budgie named for Monica Bellucci, whose decidedly cosmopolitan catalogue of dodgy discs runs the gamut from the latest action movies to Bergman's Autumn Sonata. Nader becomes the duo's fixer-manager-promoter: he duplicates their CDs for them, and provides the connections they need to obtain the right documents; he provides wit and cheek when they need it, and - in his own unique, rather slovenly way - serves as the film's own beacon, or ambassador, of cultural enlightenment.

It's through Nader that we get our tour of what is Tehran's (literally) underground scene: much of the film unfolds in basements or down back alleys, on a vengeful location scout's roster of out-of-the-way places, beyond the ken of the authorities. One thrash-metal outfit the leads encounter have been driven to rehearse on an outlying farm, where they've set about driving the farmer (and his cows) to distraction; another band has taken to playing on the rooftop of their building, with cloth over the instruments so as to mute the sound, a state of play that entails climbing several flights of stairs with a drumkit in tow.

We sense it may be exhausting and exasperating enough to get any band together in the first place, even before the power cuts and state intervention that leave rehearsal time at a premium; that Negar and Ashkan need the energy of a Nader just to keep their heads above water. (The film would sit nicely on a double-bill with 2008's documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which demonstrated how the situation is no easier over the border; both should be required viewing for those pallid wastrels currently making a show of suffering for their art in Camden bedsits.) Somewhere in the course of No One Knows, we twig this is only partly a work of fiction, and closer in fact to a sort of samizdat concert film, complete with video inserts designed to show off the very best of Tehran's rock and rap combos.

Ghobadi's films aren't as rigorously formalised as, say, Kiarostami's or Makhmalbaf's are, but they possess great spirit; he likes people, and not even during his most ostensibly political feature, 2004's Turtles Can Fly, did he feel compelled to wag his finger at his audience. No One Knows, far from despairing at these youngsters' plight, is a film of great levity: clock the black-market document providers messing around and bursting into a song of their own as our heroes await their phoney passports, or Nader's irrepressible laughter when a doctor informs the thrash metallers they have to be tested for hepatitis. (If they were touring in the West, one suspects Hep would be the least of their worries.)

It's a shame Ghobadi plumps for what we might call the festival ending - the conclusion most likely to play to the ingrained pessimism of seasoned critics - even as this denouement asserts the director's own independence in the face of those apparatchniks who'd seek to make all Iranian cultural artefacts cheery enough for export. For most of its duration, this is his most youthful-seeming picture to date: a funny, sunny, unusual teen movie that will probably play just as well to kids raised on Glee as it would to Iranian cinema buffs - oh, and the music, diverse and surprising, isn't half bad, either.

Hierro and No One Knows About Persian Cats are available on DVD from Monday.

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