It’s with grainy, putrid smartphone footage that Jafar Panahi’s new film, 3 Faces, opens. We’re greeted with the face of Marziyeh Rezaei, playing herself, though this isn’t something we’ll know until the credits — she’s hardly famous, in the film or in real life (with 3 Faces being her first and only movie credit). Here, she’s fictionally distraught, dithering, clambering around the clearance of a sun-lit cave somewhere in rural Iran, phone in hand, tracking the calamities and missteps of her life thus far. Razaei bemoans a “betrayal” by her family, for persuading her to marry, and then for belittling her actorial aspirations. Though her laments have a greater agenda than simple self-pity. 30 seconds in, she appeals to an idol of hers — Behnaz Jafari, a far more established Iranian actress — for support. “They laugh and cry with you. They would have listened to you.” But note the past tense: the plea seems in vain. Stepping through the subterrain, she professes, “I don’t see any way out. Please forgive me,” and then stops. The low angle of the camera captures her chin-first, and tilts towards the ceiling — so you expect it when you see it. With a free hand, she takes a limp coil of rope hanging above and puts it around her neck. It’s also expected when the camera falls from her hands, ricocheting along the bedrock, but I still flinched.
This is a violent, sobering start. But don’t judge a film by its opening. The rest of 3 Faces, which treats Rezaei’s apparent suicide as a narrative jump-start, operates on a far more languid stroll, continuing forward as a light-footed, idiosyncratic on-the-road expedition that unsticks itself as much as possible from the horrors of its beginning sequence. The film follows actress Behnaz Jafari and director Jafar Panahi (both playing themselves) as they embark on a vehicular journey to uncover the real details of Rezaei’s fate, having obtained her smartphone footage. Following this plotline like a weak thread with the urgency of the jutting opening sequence soon discarded, the film finds less displays of martyrdom, and more light eccentricities, as the duo confronts a series of idiosyncratic pit-stops with a sort of quiet and humorous sincerity, including but not limited to: a bull with mythical testicular prowess; a woman lying in a grave of her own making; a circumcision party; a car-honking ritual.
3 Faces feels much less urgent than its circumstances may dictate — with director Jafar Panahi often posited as a gutsy guerrilla filmmaking type; a sentence-serving maverick currently banned by the Iranian government from leaving his own country, and banned from making films (though 3 Faces is the fourth he’s made since this particular embargo). 3 Faces does not not contain social critique, but that’s mostly because, to a Western eye, social commentary feels inseparable from Iranian cinema as a result of its setting’s natural incongruence with Western society. With this dissonance in mind, Panahi, as director, displays patriarchal imbalances and offbeat old-school customs as even-handedly as possible, bordering on the empirical. Even 3 Faces’ clamp on orthodox hypocrisies — as Jafari and Panahi navigate through the tradition-steeped village of Rezaei’s homeplace in Saran — feel as chiding as a gentle slap. When Panahi makes a comment in the film, pushing for the legitimacy of a career in entertainment, one townsman lambastes the vocation, and instead champions the work of farmers and doctors. Though his delivery of a brutal adage — “Let a corpse do what it likes, and it will shit itself” — is more droll than bitter. As such, the means by which Saran lies anchored by its unshakeable conventions, favouring insular, practicable pursuits over urban fancies, is depicted less as a shortfall but as a peculiarity. The three actresses in the film – which may or may not be the titular faces – are each in the beginning, the middle, and the end of their careers — respectively, with Rezaei, Jafari, and the third — Madam Shahrzad, who had her “time of glory” pre-Iranian Revolution, and currently resides in Saran. When Jafari and Panahi reach the village and speak to its inhabitants, it becomes clear that Saran’s actorial occupants are looked down upon — Shahrzad is “miserable” and lives alone, and Rezaei is “empty-headed” and near-ostracized by the village. On the other hand, Jafari, Tehran-based and at the height of her career, is greeted with respect and self-effacement at every turn— as Jafari and Panahi arrive at the small village, they’re greeted with handshakes and demands for autographs. But this hypocrisy isn’t as painful as it could be, with the desperation of Rezaei kept shallow and a tad hammy, and with the post-retirement slump of Madam Shahrzad kept completely undepicted — she does not appear in the film, her existence relegated only to town rumours.
Panahi’s slight criticism of the village’s two-facedness is rendered even leaner as he acknowledges the trappings of his own male perspective. We stay with him as Jafari slips behind closed doors to talk with the other women. If there’s juice in those conversations, we don’t see it. And so there is little anger in 3 Faces, and little unpleasantness — though that’s not such a bad thing. In one scene, as Jafari goes to talk to another woman, we stay with Panahi as he waits by his car, and quietly watch with him the dimming of the dusk, a bead of unfocused light emanating from a house nearby. Unlike Panahi’s other movies, which are much more explicitly topical, most notably his self-reflexive video diary This is Not a Film (2011), this is very much a film, by its least ambitious definition. Even though Panahi’s situation as a banned filmmaker renders any production of cinema an act of defiance, in 3 Faces, he revels in the low and slow cruise of substantially plotless fiction, injecting a bit of humour, a bit of mystery, a touch of op-ed. And he’s damn good at it — even on a technical level. The camera, choreographed by Amin Jafari, is very exacting; it is very suave. Behnaz Jafari leans an inch or so back in her headrest, and the camera nudges slightly to the right to follow her. This is enjoyable filmmaking. The editing, at the hands of Mastaneh Mohajer and Panah Panahi, is fantastic too — economical, calculated, cut to the frame, sometimes a bit mischievous. The film feels like a modest indulgence, if that’s not too indigestible an oxymoron: it feels like something a maestro whipped up on a free weekend just for the joy of it. And so ultimately, the pleasure of 3 Faces is simple — it’s enjoyable to watch something that someone enjoyed making. And even more so, when it’s at the risk of a six-year prison sentence.
3 Faces will play exclusively at Golden Age Cinema and at ACMI’s Jafar Panahi season from 2 May.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.