The Most Beautiful Fraud: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

A problem I’ve always had with Iranian cinema, from Abbas Kiarostami to Asghar Farhadi, is that its films tend to be…how can I put this?  They’re a bit deliberate.   A bit studied.  A bit slowly paced.  A bit…boring.

This may seem like blasphemy, especially coming from someone who values Italian neo-realism, Jeanne Dielman, and other slice-of-life films that dole out their revelations through long, slow takes and observation instead of action.  But it’s a barrier I’ve rarely been able to overcome, and it’s kept me from appreciating a lot of films that I think I would have otherwise enjoyed.  I’m all for the accurate portrayal of everyday life, but even the most tedious moments of everyday life move faster than some of Kiarostami’s work, unless you are talking about the everyday life of a snail with a serious syrup addiction.

The same criticism only somewhat applies to the visually sumptuous, deliberately ambiguous ‘vampire western’, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.  Its Iranian bona fides require constant explication:  it’s not an Iranian film, despite a number of surface similarities to the work of certain third-wave Persian cinema auteurs, but it is made by a British-born Iranian-American named Ana Lily Amirpour, based in her own graphic novel.  It was not filmed in Iran but in California’s Central Valley, but it is supposed to be set in Iran (probably — this is one of many details of the plot that is left deliberately vague).  Its cast all speak Farsi, but they are not all Iranian-born; rather, they are a mix of Asian, British, and American actors who are all of Persian descent.  And its pedigree in terms of cinematic ancestry is certainly as American as it is Iranian.  But it retains that slow, deliberate pace that marks so much of Iranian cinema, which in my view is a mark against it, while retaining many of the more positive aspects of the Persian national film industry, such as a gift for portraying industrial encroachment on rural areas, emotional intensity blended with outward stoicism, a brilliant eye for theatrical detail, and a standoffish relationship with the mechanisms of the church and the state combined with a realistic sense of the cost of resisting them.

Amirpour’s film concerns the trials of a young man named Arash (Arash Marandi), a semi-hoodlum with dreams of being a high-roller — witness his rockabilly style and his immaculate vintage car — that falter thanks to his small-time surroundings in the decaying industrial town of Bad City and his junkie father’s addiction, debts, and general hopelessness.  His primary tormenter is the pimp and drug dealer Saeed, who runs afoul of the girl in the title.  Sheila Vand plays the vampire, and, in one of the film’s few crystal-clear messages, she is the only woman in the entirety of Bad City (deserted as it may be) who both dresses in traditional Muslim garb and is able to roam the streets at night, her outward compliance with religious law counterbalanced by her inward nature as a fierce creature beyond all understanding.  Saeed does not survive the encounter, and Arash is the beneficiary, but he soon has to make difficult choices about his relationships — with the callow socialite he’s become infatuated by, with his failure of a father, with the girl, and ultimately with himself.

This is all treated very gingerly by the plot, if you can even call it that; it’s more an aggregation of situations strung together by a bunch of moods.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; when it works, it works like a house on fire.  The acting is universally excellent, even with relatively unrewarding roles like Rome Shadanloo as the debutante; particularly praiseworthy is Marshall Manesh as Arash’s tragic, despicable, doomed father Hossein.  While it’s clearly the work of a first-time feature director, there are moments in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night that show Amirpour as a women with a tremendous visual sensibility and a lot of raw talent; a few shots — of Arash’s car, of a huge industrial oil works outside the city, of the girl in her room (her secret life reflected in her outward demure appearance giving way to a private fantasy of fashion icons and forbidden pop), of Mozhan Marnò as a prostitute standing in front of a stark white light preparing to give Hossein one last taste of the high life — simply take the viewer’s breath away.

The only frustrations arise when you realize that all this beauty, skill, and talent is in service of a story that is often maddeningly incomplete and barely there.  While ambiguity can be a virtue, there are so many questions about where these characters came from and where they are going — up to and including its striking but utterly baffling ending — that it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the answers aren’t there not because Amirpour doesn’t feel like giving them to us, but because she hasn’t bothered to think of them.  Beyond that, a lot of the most gorgeous scenes are oddly static, perhaps a relic of its origins as a comic book — but what works as a non-moving image on paper can seem passive, even frozen, on screen.  As beautiful as some of the shots are, they go on so long that they can seem like padding.  And then there’s that leisurely, almost placid pace, which does a lot, as it does in other Iranian cinema, to preserve a certain mood, but is so sluggish and detached that it seems like the director is disinterested — and if Amirpour doesn’t care how slow things are going, why should we?

Still, no film with as much visual flair as A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night can be easily ignored.  It’s a movie that’s absolutely worth seeing for the visuals alone (and that should be easy enough, as it’s supposed to end up on Netflix streaming at the end of this month); add in some high-quality acting and an absolutely tremendous soundtrack, and you’ve got in Amirpour a director worth paying attention to.  There are elements of early Jarmusch, Tarantino, and even David Lynch in her work; if she can master the emotional questions of isolation, loneliness, and identity that she only hints at here, she could earn a spot of her own in the pantheon of promising young directors similarly influenced.

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