Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3

Downpour: Furtive Glances

<span class="Italic"><em>Downpour: </em></span><span class="Italic">Furtive Glances</span>

An artist, critic, and scholar highly respected in his native Iran but too little known in the West, Bahram Beyzaie is a gifted autodidact of traditional and modern theater and performing arts, and of cinema. Born in Tehran in 1938, he went on to write his first plays while still in high school, and by 1965 had published his now seminal A Study on Iranian Theatre, which demonstrated his deep knowledge of the variety of forms of theater practiced in the region since ancient times. In 1971—after a decade in which he wrote and directed many plays, a number of which also drew from his continued scholarship on theatrical traditions—Beyzaie undertook to make his first feature film, Downpour (Ragbar), a slyly inventive romantic drama produced independently from his own screenplay. His subsequent movies, made both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution—including Stranger and the Fog (1976); Bashu, the Little Stranger (1986); and Killing Mad Dogs (2001)—consolidated his reputation as one of the foremost auteur directors in Iran. But Downpour remains one of his best-known and best-loved works, and it helped to inaugurate the Iranian New Wave, which placed the country on the world map of engaged cinema.

If culture and cinema in the United States are primarily commercial, in Iran they are principally political, even the commercial culture and cinema. Under the last shah (1941–79), the state constituted both a powerful friend and pillar of support for the film industry and an irresistible foe and punching bag for the auteur directors, as it continues to do under the ayatollahs who came to power after him. In the late sixties, Iranian critics relentlessly decried the low quality of the films made in the popular abgushti (stewpot) and luti (tough guy) genres, on the grounds that these commercially made movies actually lowered film-industry profits, along with the country’s taste culture and national prestige.

By August 1968, a more enlightened government had decided that to control cinema it was necessary not only to censor it but also to patronize it. On August 21, Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda told a gathering of the Movie Artists Syndicate, “Iranian movies must have originality and be inspired by Iranian history.” He then announced that his government was designating a sum of ten million tomans (nearly equivalent to $1.4 million at the time) in the fourth national development plan for the film industry. One ironic and felicitous result of this investment was the emergence of a “New Wave” (sinema-ye mowj-e no) countercinema, at odds with both the commercial genre cinema and the government that largely provided its own funding. If box-office revenue and state censorship shaped the Iranian commercial cinema of the fifties and sixties, the New Wave cinema of the seventies was defined by its complex relationship with the state, which both funded and censored it; by the authorial status of the New Wave directors, many of them trained in the West; and by their collaboration with dissident, leftist writers.

“A synergy among filmmakers, dissident writers, and trained actors helped to drive the New Wave films’ stylistic innovations and social relevance.”

Among the Western-trained New Wave directors were Fereydoun Rahnema, Farrokh Ghaffari, Kamran Shirdel, Parviz Kimiavi, Sohrab Shahid Saless, and Hajir Darioush (trained in Europe); and Bahman Farmanara, Dariush Mehrjui, and Khosrow Haritash (trained in the United States). Self-taught or domestically trained directors included Beyzaie, Masud Kimiai, Naser Taghvai, Parviz Sayyad, Amir Naderi, and Abbas Kiarostami, whose deceptively simple but profoundly layered films pushed him into the pantheon of world cinema. Together, these two groups formed an authorial force whose work undertook a more critical examination of Iranian society and history than had been attempted on-screen in the past. The almost simultaneous emergence of a new generation of socially conscious leftist and secular writers whose works these directors adapted or with whom they collaborated on original screenplays—such as Gholam-Hossein Saedi, Sadegh Chubak, Houshang Golshiri, and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (as with the directors, an exclusively male group)—also helped contribute to the abandoning of traditional commercial genre formulas and narratives in favor of enhanced realism, character interiority, and narrative continuity and coherence. Additionally, the New Wave films benefited from the talents of a new generation of theater actors, trained in modern representational acting, many of whom worked in the Ministry of Culture and Arts’ theaters. In fact, this was an important ancillary effect of the ministry’s increased support of cinema starting in the late sixties: filmmakers’ access to its cadre of skilled actors.

This synergy among filmmakers, dissident writers, and trained actors helped to drive the New Wave films’ stylistic innovations and social relevance, features that had been in short supply in the Iranian commercial cinema of the previous decades. Of the movement’s many artistic talents, Beyzaie stood out as one of the most protean. Turning his attention to filmmaking after achieving renown as a scholar and playwright, he made a couple of shorts for the semigovernmental Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults before writing and directing Downpour. This feature—produced by Barbod Taheri, who also served as cinematographer—immediately placed Beyzaie among the top New Wave directors, and established a theme he would revisit in later films, among them Stranger and the Fog and Bashu, the Little Stranger: a community’s fear of an outsider (or group of outsiders) who has arrived in their midst, upsetting that community’s traditional harmony and relations of power, and unleashing strong reactions of attraction and repulsion. Only after the stranger’s removal can the community return to an apparent, if uneasy, harmony.

Downpour weaves a rich tapestry involving a budding love between a new teacher, Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fannizadeh), and Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi), the sister of one of his students, in Tehran’s poor South End. The teacher’s public arrival into this community, with all his belongings loaded on a cart, is observed cautiously by the neighbors and good-naturedly by the noisy schoolchildren. Soon the students spy on Atefeh complaining to Mr. Hekmati about his punishing of her brother, a scene that the schoolchildren, with their eyes glued to the classroom windows, interpret with knowing smirks as intimacy between the two. (The film is imaginative and clever in its many depictions of such acts of looking.) This conjecture by the students soon mushrooms into a neighborhood rumor, and the exchanges of various knowing and derisive gazes and sarcastic comments among Mr. Hekmati’s fellow teachers. Thus, before he and Atefeh own up to their love for each other, these feelings are already clear to the whole neighborhood, as well as to the viewer.

At the same time, Atefeh and her family are beholden to the neighborhood tough guy, Rahim (Manuchehr Farid), a burly butcher who has been helping them in various ways in hopes of winning Atefeh’s hand in marriage. But she has no interest in, or expectation of, being swept off her feet. With Atefeh—unusual in the context of the Iranian cinema of the time for being an independent young woman who has a job, using her position as a seamstress to support and care for her brother and sick mother—Beyzaie introduced what was for him the first of many strong, distinctive female protagonists. His films Ballad of Tara (1979) and Death of Yazdgerd (based on his own acclaimed play, 1982) were long banned in Iran, apparently partly because of their representation of unveiled women.

The film’s structure of vision and power has three layers: the desirous exchange of looks and words between the two protagonists; the invasive looking at, and gossip about, the protagonists from Mr. Hekmati’s fellow teachers, the children, and the villagers; and the state’s controlling gaze at Iranian society. In the seventies, surveillance by the shah’s domestic intelligence service, SAVAK—which had unchecked power to detain, torture, and execute dissenters—was pervasive. As Barbod Taheri has said, the film’s frequent relays of furtive and controlling gazing are “symbolic of the observing and controlling looks of SAVAK’s secret agents in society.” In inscribing and suggesting these looks, Downpour offers a powerful critique of the secret police without referring to SAVAK directly—a message that, despite the subtlety with which it is delivered, would not have been lost on contemporary audiences. Many viewers would have read the film as Beyzaie’s defiant act of looking askance and sneering at a government that would have failed to read the film with its grain, thus missing its criticism.

The character of the butcher also represents a sort of parallel to SAVAK. He is to the neighborhood what the secret police are to the country: muscular, arrogant, furtive, and bullying. Rahim beats up Mr. Hekmati in front of the children and competes with him to receive credit for the reconstruction of the school’s auditorium, undertaken so that a theatrical production by the students can be staged there. Their rivalry fits the archetypal conflict between a luti (a good-guy tough) and a lat (a bad-guy tough, or lout), and carries the film to its conclusion. Though the teacher eventually gains the trust and sympathy of both the local children and their families, and learns about their poverty-stricken but honorable lives—including during the film’s climactic downpour, from which he seeks refuge inside Atefeh’s home—he is, in the end, abruptly transferred out of the area to another school.

The independent mode of production adopted by Beyzaie and his crew granted them certain freedoms, including the ability to experiment creatively.”

The teacher is rejected, not so much by the community, which has grown fond of him, but by unknown forces, perhaps by behind-the-scenes SAVAK machinations (an officious-looking stranger wearing sunglasses glimpsed toward the end is perhaps the film’s most direct embodiment of the one-way gaze of the secret police). The teacher’s departure without Atefeh, who decides to stay put, is, like his arrival, very public, except this time the children see him off with honor and his teary-eyed coworkers follow his cart, bearing a mysterious coffin, as though it is a hearse carrying Mr. Hekmati’s dead body. With such symbolism, which quotes traditional Shiite religious performances of tazia and the martyrdom of sacred figures such as the imams and their families, the film departs from the strict realism that defined so much of the Iranian New Wave. Like Masud Kimiai’s famed tough-guy movie Dash Akol (1971), Downpour ends by mourning the passing of honest and heroic men. Significantly, Mr. Hekmati’s departure does not return the neighborhood to its former state of equilibrium, for it has been changed as a result of his efforts; even Atefeh has been changed by him and by her affection for him. Mr. Hekmati becomes a martyr of sorts, his life and untimely figurative death serving to nourish and bolster the community.

In making the film, Beyzaie accepted no funding from either the state or the commercial sector. “The day that we lost all hopes [of assistance from others] and we decided to make the film ourselves [. . .] we realized that we had become very powerful,” he has said. The independent mode of production adopted by Beyzaie and his crew thus granted them certain freedoms, including the ability to experiment creatively. It is worth hearing Beyzaie’s own account of the film’s freewheeling production. As he tells it:

Each of us did the work of four crew members, and each of us regarded those jobs as belonging to us. No supervisor or nosy censor metamorphosed our story, and the day we began cinematography, I still had to write seventeen pages of the screenplay. We sought assistance from all our friends, and we used all of our own resources. We thank everyone who took a step to help us, and we wish whoever blocked our way, or snickered at us, more wisdom and culture. We are sorry that because of financial and technical deficiencies we were not able to create our mise-en-scène as well as we wished. [. . .] We shot the film in twenty-four neighborhoods of Tehran, with the aid of, and as witnessed by, the residents, many of whom will find their daily lives reflected in it. We did not have any special equipment to film in the alleys and streets; we filmed very close to our reality. Much of the film was shot without the usual notes, in a very improvised manner, but this does not mean that I did not have any plans in mind. On the contrary, my ideas and plans became real and alive under real conditions. This even helped me to rediscover the meanings of the story.

In 1972, Downpour received a special jury prize at the first Tehran International Film Festival—an event that became an important showcase for New Wave movies—and was greeted with positive reviews, but it did not do well at the box office when it opened in sixteen movie houses in Tehran; its producer, Taheri, landed in jail on account of unpaid debts. A year after the film’s release, the director—who had not finished his studies at Tehran University—became a professor of theater there, carrying on his research into ancient and modern theater and performing arts in Iran and Asian countries such as Japan and China. He also soon continued to make thought-provoking films—his most recent being 2009’s When We Are All Asleep—alongside further stage productions, both at home and abroad in the United States, where he has been living in exile since 2010. But none of Beyzaie’s movies has proved more clever, trenchant, and prescient than Downpour, which depicted a particular slice of Tehrani life at a time when dissent against the authoritarian shah was beginning to percolate below the surface—tensions that would erupt in less than a decade into a full-blown revolution. The perceptive and sensitive artist that he is, Beyzaie had tapped into a deep psychological unease, and brought it to the screen with a remarkable verve and humanity.