One of the most brilliant and revered storytellers in the world, Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi proves his genius yet again with his latest cinematic masterpiece, the tenderhearted yet subtly fierce road movie 3 Faces. The film, which made its US premiere this past fall at the New York Film Festival and won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, is screening January 13 as part of IFC Center’s inaugural Iranian Film Festival New York. As with some of Panahi’s earlier works, 3 Faces walks the fine line between fiction and nonfiction while defending the art of filmmaking. Popular Iranian movie and television star Behnaz Jafari, playing herself, has received a video in which a teenage girl named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), frustrated that her family will not let her study acting at the conservatory where she’s been accepted, commits suicide onscreen, disappointed that her many texts and phone calls to her hero, Jafari, went unanswered. Deeply upset by the video — which was inspired by a real event — Jafari, who claims to have received no such messages, enlists her friend and colleague, writer-director Panahi, also playing himself, to head into the treacherous mountains to try to find out more about Marziyeh and her friend Maedeh (Maedeh Erteghaei). They learn the girls are from a small village in the Turkish-speaking Azeri region in northwest Iran, and as they make their way through narrow, dangerous mountain roads, they encounter tiny, close-knit communities that still embrace old traditions and rituals and are not exactly looking to help them find out the truth.
Panahi (Offside, The Circle) — who is banned from writing and directing films in his native Iran, is not allowed to give interviews, and cannot leave the country — spends much of the time in his car, which not only works as a plot device but also was considered necessary in order for him to hide from local authorities who might turn him in to the government. He and Jafari stop in three villages, the birthplaces of his mother, father, and grandparents, for further safety. The title refers to three generations of women in Iranian cinema: Marziyeh, the young, aspiring artist; Jafari, the current star (coincidentally, when she goes to a café, the men inside are watching an episode from her television series); and Shahrzad, aka Kobra Saeedi, a late 1960s, early 1970s film icon who has essentially vanished from public view following the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, banned from acting in Iran. (Although Shahrzad does not appear as herself in the film, she does read her poetry in voiceover.) 3 Faces is gorgeously photographed by Amin Jafari and beautifully edited by Mastaneh Mohajer, composed of many long takes with few cuts and little camera movement; early on there is a spectacular eleven-minute scene in which an emotionally tortured Behnaz Jafari listens to Panahi next to her on the phone, gets out of the car, and walks around it, the camera glued to her the whole time in a riveting tour-de-force performance.
3 Faces is Panahi’s fourth film since he was arrested and convicted in 2010 for “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”; the other works are This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, and Taxi Tehran, all of which Panahi starred in and all of which take place primarily inside either a home or a vehicle. 3 Faces is the first one in which he spends at least some time outside, where it is more risky for him; in fact, whenever he leaves the car in 3 Faces, it is evident how tentative he is, especially when confronted by an angry man. The film also has a clear feminist bent, not only centering on the three generations of women, but also demonstrating the outdated notions of male dominance, as depicted by a stud bull with “golden balls” and one villager’s belief in the mystical power of circumcised foreskin and how he relates it to former macho star Behrouz Vossoughi, who appeared with Shahrzad in the 1973 film The Hateful Wolf and is still active today, living in California. Panahi, of course, will not be present at the IFC screening, as his road has been blocked, leaving him a perilous path that he must navigate with great care. However, Iranian writer, director, and producer Bahman Farmanara will be at the festival for Q&As following three of his films, opening night’s Tale of the Sea in addition to I Want to Dance and Tall Shadows of the Wind. Cofounded and coprogrammed by Godfrey Cheshire, the first Iranian Film Festival New York includes such other classic and cutting-edge films as Asghar Yousefinejad’s The Home, Abbas Amini’s Hendi & Hormoz, and Houman Seyedi’s closing night Sheeple, in addition to a tribute to Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away in 2016 at the age of seventy-six, pairing Seifollah Samadian’s 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami with Kiarostami’s 2016 short Take Me Home.