Film Reviews
Photo: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus films

Iranian writer/director/producer Jafar Panahi has a sobering profile. In 2010 the Iranian government officially banned Panahi from any travel and all future film contributions for twenty years because of his “propaganda against the system.” Undeterred, with a suspended six-year prison sentence, Panahi surreptitiously continued working. However, July 2022, officials reimposed Panahi’s sentence for his protesting fellow filmmakers’ imprisonment.

Confined to house arrest, nevertheless over the last decade Panahi continued creating unsanctioned, humanistic cinema. In that regard, Panahi’s latest, multilayered film, “No Bears,” again proves his truly imaginative, complex, at times even playful interrogation of tradition versus progress, freedom versus oppression, rumor versus evidence. The central character is Panahi himself playing a barely fictionalized role, a director who retreats from Tehran to the village Joban near the border with Turkey.

Via laptop with erratic Wi-Fi connections, Panahi directs a film shooting in Tehran where a couple schemes to acquire fake passports for escape from Iran. Meantime, in Joban, a young man and young woman participate in a traditional, pre-wedding foot-washing ceremony. Inadvertently causing serious disruption with the male elders, Panahi becomes enmeshed in lies, confrontation with villagers and local authorities, and trouble on the set of his Tehran production. Juxtaposing these two threads reveals the restrictive quandary of societal conflict and political maneuvering as it impacts, in insidious ways, individual freedom. The title itself, “No Bears,” refers to a story used just to scare people into conformity.  

Panahi is a phenomenal talent, and I don’t use that word loosely. He is endlessly inventive with breadth and depth. He makes films that engage the intellect and the emotions, those rare gifts that the more I think about them, the more the layers peel back. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, in Farsi with English subtitles, “No Bears” streams on the Criterion Channel now.

A footnote: In October the Iranian supreme court ordered a retrial of Panahi. He was released in February 2023 after declaring a hunger strike. Events remain in flux.

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