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Where Is The Friends Home  

Over the years, I've read enough articles which waded into the debate on the quality of films from Iran. Some say they are masterpieces, completely alien from Western films, and innovative in structure and story. Others, however, say they are often the most excruciatingly boring examples of art-house twaddle. Roger Ebert and others seemed rather angered that Taste of Cherry won the Palme D'or at Cannes, because it was such a boring experience.

Where is the Friend's Home, directed by Cherry's Abbas Kiarostami, also suffers - or, at least, it made my eyes suffer, until they nearly closed completely from the exhaustion. The movie looks as though it will be good, in its own quiet way, but....... everything drags on and on and on.... toward a payoff as simple as it is undeveloped. Then again, boring films can be created, not by the filmmakers, but by subjective conditions. Picture this -- here I was, running on five hours sleep, with a brutal case of a plugged right ear, which needed a doctor's attention the next day, and my viewing choice was a film from Iran. A recipe for disaster!

The story - a kid always seems to forget his notebook before going to school. Already, he has suffered the verbal punishment from his teacher twice, and is threatened with expulsion if he forgets his homework one more time. Later, his classmate helps him up from a fall, and, apparently, in the process, the fallen student loses his notebook once again, because later on, it is in the other kid's possession, and he has to return the book back or else the kid will be expelled. The rest of the movie is his attempt to find the kid's house and return the book.

Sounds like a cute little movie, right? Like Truffaut, maybe? Wrong. Where is the Friend's Home is such a boring, tedious drone. Sure, okay, I was half asleep anyway, as I usually am in the middle of the afternoon if I had a lack of sleep the night before, but isn't it possible that Abbas Kiarostami assisted in giving me tired eyes? (Hey, doctor, forget my plugged ear, I think I have Kiarostami-itis, or maybe Abbas-atosis) The movie just goes on and on for 90 minutes, without much excitement, or even compelling storytelling. I really don't think that Kiarostami can even direct to save his life. He just sits the camera down, and records every little minutia without really figuring out its usefulness to the story.

Possibly the most glaring example of this sort of direction is the scene in which the kid tries to tell his mother that he has to bring back the book. This isn't just one little moment in which the kid says that he has to bring back the book, while the mother says that you have to do your homework before you go out and play. This lasts for about six to seven minutes, and there is not a shred of buildup or variation to this scene; just the visual equivalent of a broken record. The rest of the movie is little different, as the kid sneaks out of the house to find the kid, first by travelling over his neighbourhood, and then to the next village. Each place he goes he asks where the kid lives, without any useful answers. Couldn't he have least had some interesting adventures? Maybe discovered some interesting things?

The only really interesting scenes in the whole movie involve what happens in the classroom. At least we have the appearance of conflict; when the teacher walks in to the room, he uses his authority much like that of a dictator, if a deceptively soft-spoken one. These are the only compelling scenes in the movie, although there does seem to be a general theme concerning authority figures and their tyranny upon children, and how different commands seem to contradict each other. For example, you have the parents of children making them do chores around the home, while the teacher says forcefully that homework comes first, even before chores. There is a key exchange between the boy's uncle and another villager about the need to encourage discipline - and corporal punishment - against children, even at the expense of boosting the child's self-esteem. Directly, he says that it is more crucial to give the child a regular beating than it is to give the child frequent praise; at least with the punishment, he will understand right and wrong (well, that's the old idiot's excuse).

Even with this content, the movie fails. There is very little style. There is no sense of character or motivation - the events are so arbitrary, so as to stretch the running time, and the characters are poorly developed. There is no reason to be attached to them. And the ending is possibly the biggest cop-out ever, because it solves absolutely nothing. In a better movie, it would be cute, but here, it's just a huge letdown.

Iran is apparently a bastion of cinematic talent. Okay, Gabbeh had its charms; and Children of Heaven is a genuinely fine movie, also about children, and far, far more accessible and entertaining than this movie. But I don't know how to account for Where is the Friend's Home, a movie difficult by any standards, and pointless and dull by most of them. That does not mean I won't try any more Iranian films. My local store, oddly, has a fair number of films from Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh), and I will try to get through one or two more before I can make any broad generalization of an entire film culture.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Film Reviews

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