My first screening of this year’s festival, which is primarily online, was one of three ‘free’ archive screenings. This restoration of a film deliberately marginalised by critics and industry officials in 1976 and banned after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 came about only when the original reels of film were found by the director’s son in a street market in 2015. Up until then only heavily degraded VHS copies were available after the director Mohammad Reza Aslani was allowed back into the industry limelight in the late 1990s, mainly as a documentary maker.
The presentation was via BFI Player with a short introduction by Robin Baker and the director’s daughter Gita, a film scholar, and then a pre-recorded Q&A from the couple (in a split screen) after the screening. Everything worked smoothly. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. The pre-publicity suggested “the Persian lovechild of Tennessee Williams and Ingmar Bergman”. I thought this sounded unlikely and as the film rolled I thought I recognised a number of possible global links. In particular, I was reminded of Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese films with narratives featuring a feudal household experiencing a moment of decline and change in a grand house while outside a group of working-class women are constantly washing clothes in the large pond within a courtyard. They seem to play the role of a Greek chorus discussing all the goings-on and the sins of the rich. I was reminded of Almodóvar’s Volver and the women dressing graves among other films where groups of women are washing together. In the Q&A that followed, Gita told us that her father was influenced by two cinéastes, Visconti, especially re The Leopard (1963) and Bresson (mainly for the way he handled actors). The Leopard certainly makes sense as a narrative about aristocratic decline in the face of revolutionary forces. I don’t know Bresson well enough to comment on that reference.
The action in the narrative is all inside the house, apart from the women and the last surprising shot of the film. The woman who owned the house has just died and now her second husband has assumed control. But he has problems. Also in the house is his stepdaughter who is confined to a wheelchair and seems to be not in good health generally. The other two residents are two brothers, his nephews(?) who he has ‘taken in’. One of them wishes to marry the stepdaughter. There are several servants for the house as well – an elderly nanny, a young woman who is the stepdaughter’s maid and some kitchen staff. Finally there are two visitors, an elderly doctor and a ‘commissar’, (a police officer?). The audience is likely to wonder when the story is set. The only clue I could see was the commissar’s uniform which for me suggested the 1920s/30s. In the Q&A Gita told us that in the 1920s there were women who made quite dramatic feminist statements and that the stepdaughter repeats one of these statements in her description of a dream she has. The interior of the house in terms of layout and decoration suggests a period possibly a little earlier. Again, the final sequence in the film will provide some answers.
In genre terms this is a gothic melodrama that moves towards violence and horror. There is an element from Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (France 1955) and the house reminded me of The Handmaiden (South Korea 2016) which also shares other elements with this film. The fact that the film so shocked and confounded Iranian critics in 1976 probably says more about the state of cinema and culture at the end of the Shah’s regime than it does about the film itself. Those critics would at least have had more understanding of the details of the mise en scène of the scenes in the house, including the paintings on the walls and the domestic procedures such as the laying of the dinner on the richly carpeted floor and the bedroom with its raised sleeping platform. The stepdaughter has a very beautiful carved wooden wheelchair and how she gets about the house, even with her maid pushing the chair is something of a mystery since there is a grand staircase and a cellar to navigate. The dialogue too is carefully written to include cultural references that might be inaccessible to non-Iranians but none of this matters so much in a film that is so visually rich and which comments on Iranian history and society so directly via those elements borrowed from global cinema. The final sequence of the film is also perfectly handled so that we go back and re-think some of the earlier scenes. In the Q&A, Robin Baker asked the almost unavoidable question about Shakespeare and received the response that indeed the director was interested in Shakespeare and that perhaps this was a version of hamlet with gender reversals? You can probably guess from that remark that all does not end well.
Music, camerawork, mise en scène, performance all combine to make this a visual treat. The film is still available free, up until 15.00 BST on Tuesday 13 October, on BFI Player in the UK. It was restored in 4K in 2020 by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna from the original 35mm camera and sound negatives at L’Image Retrouvée laboratory (Paris) in collaboration with Mohammad Reza Aslani and Gita Aslani Shahrestani. Presumably this will later become available for wider distribution and cinema screenings. Do look out for it. On a big cinema screen this should look amazing.
Mayak is presented by MUBI in a restored print, re-constructed from two surviving 35mm prints. It’s a beautiful and extraordinary film – a stark beauty expressed in a brown/olive dominated palette, sometimes with a ‘bleached out’ look. (How much this is influenced by the effects of restoration is unclear, but I assume the film looks as close to its original appearance as possible.) It’s a début feature film by Mariya Saakyan, an Armenian woman who studied at the Moscow Film School, VGIK. Tragically, she died of cancer, aged only 37 in 2018 after completing a second feature. She was the mother of five children and this restoration is to be particularly welcomed because it enables more audiences to recognise her achievements during her brief career.
Lena (Anna Kapaleva) is a young Armenian woman who has been living in Moscow and now she is on a train heading back to Armenia. The date is not specified but it must be some time during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992-4. The war is represented by helicopter raids in the mountains and troop movements on the railway. The film is not about the fighting as such but more about the ‘home front’ of the people who have decided to stay while the young adults are fighting. The war did in fact see large numbers of displaced people. The causes of the war are not mentioned directly. Lena eventually returns to her village where she finds her aunt and her grandparents. It soon becomes clear that they must leave but her grandparents are reluctant.
This is a film in which landscape is almost a second central character. We are in the mountains of the South Caucasus where roads snake round the valley sides rising slowly in long sweeps to counter the steep inclines. Mist descends to the valley floor and the cinematography by Maksim Drozdov offers us long shot compositions which emphasise the sense of isolation. The railway is single track and the small station is at the centre of people’s attention even if there are seemingly no trains that stop to pick up passengers. There is very little narrative development as such but this shortish feature (78 minutes) is richly layered with different types of visual images as well as music and choral singing. The cinematography and sound are presented through different editing styles. The film feels more like an art film about memories than a melodrama about families, although that is what holds it together to some extent.
The consensus of commentators is that this a highly ‘poetic’ film and inevitably Tarkovsky is suggested as an influence, but it appears that the director has poets in her own family background and I’m also reminded that poetry features heavily in the films of Northern Iran which isn’t too far away across the mountains. In fact the film was shot, according to a Notebooks essay on MUBI, close to the border between Armenia and Georgia and scripted by a Georgian, Givi Shavgulidze who described events that took place during the Georgian-Abkhaz War of 1992-3. The village which features in the film is Madan, first built in the mountains around the site of a copper mine and featuring a significant Greek minority community. All these dislocations add to the sense that the film is about memories and especially the ways in which identity is felt by a wide range of peoples who experienced the break up of the Soviet empire in the 1990s.
Here is a quote from an interview with Maksim Drozdov:
I consider it important for the understanding of this film to note that for none of us was it a “film about war” at the very least for the reason that in the beginning of the ‘90s all of us were still kids and we could understand little about the events happening around us. The Lighthouse is a film about the childhood home, the reality around which has changed, has become unhomely, extrusive. And one seemingly needs to run from this uncozy reality, but it is so hard to leave your home behind. So many people in different parts of a big country that was at that time falling apart had to leave their homes and go into the unknown. (from https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/heavenly-authors-discussing-the-lighthouse-with-cinematographer-maksim-drozdov)
In the time it has taken me to watch the film, read about the background and write this posting over two or three weeks, war has again broken out in Nagorno-Karabakh the Armenian enclave within Azeri territory and the ostensible setting of this narrative. I’ve learned a great deal on this project and the film itself has been affecting for me. The Lighthouse (Mayak) is also available on a Second Run DVD (Region Free) and is highly recommended.
A friend drew my attention to the trailer issued by the BFI for the re-release of Doctor Zhivago (US-UK 1965). Inexplicably this features, not the famous score by Maurice Jarre, but a predominately piano score that rather ‘sounds like Michael Nyman’!
This is bizarre. Besides the insult to a major composer for film it is likely to at the very least confuse audiences. It is possible that fans of the film will avoid this re-issue because it apparently does not have the original score, (which I believe it actually does). People who do not know the film may avoid it because they do not like what seems to be the score. And people who like the music on the trailer may turn up and be irritated by its absence.
I am sure that there is a line in a famous song from The Mikado which would suit whoever is responsible.