Hit the Road Tops London’s Awards

Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road (2021)

Warmly received when it premiered this summer in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road gathered steam with a round of strong reviews when it screened in New York a couple of weeks ago. On Sunday evening, Panahi’s debut feature won the award for best film in competition in London. “At all times in cinema history,” said director and jury president Małgorzata Szumowska (Never Gonna Snow Again), “but perhaps during a pandemic especially, we are looking for ways to connect to life. Our choice is for a film that made us laugh and cry and feel alive.” On Twitter, jury member Jessica Kiang confirmed that the decision was “instant, unanimous, and joyous.”

Panahi’s father, Jafar, is still banned from traveling out of Iran—and from filmmaking, though, of course, he has clandestinely made four features since he was convicted in December 2010 of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Panah was working with his father as a consultant, editor, and assistant director, most recently on 3 Faces (2018), when he completed his own first full-length screenplay. “I wrote the script on my own and had my father read it once I felt it worked,” he tells Variety’s Nick Vivarelli. While Hit the Road is “the opposite of Jafar’s cinema, he immediately got on board and gave me great advice.”

What Hit the Road does share with his father’s Taxi (2015)—and for that matter, with several films by Abbas Kiarostami—is a concentration of action in and around a moving car. A family of four is on a mysterious mission. The father (Hassan Madjooni) props up his cast-bound leg in the back seat alongside his six-year-old son (Rayan Sarlak), “pinging around the car like a pinball,” as Jessica Kiang notes in her review for Variety. The boy’s “irrepressible, bendy, explosive energy gives the film its anarchic spirit.” The mother (Pantea Panahiha) sits up front with her twenty-year-old son (Amin Simiar), who does most of the driving. For a good while, only Jessy, the ailing family dog, is called out by name.

Wary of the police and any other authority figure, the three adults anticipate what lies up the road ahead with a dread and sorrow they try to keep secret from the boy. Sarlak “is one of the funniest, sharpest-witted, most exuberantly willful child characters I’ve ever seen, and his bond with his brother and their parents is complex and subtle, gruff yet tender,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Panahi films the drama with aesthetic audacity to match his psychological subtlety. The painterly grandeur and contemplative distance at which he films crucial moments of furious expression suggests a deep respect for his characters’ ineffable emotion, for the sublimity of their sacrifices.”

“Not unlike a car swerving between lanes, so too does this film quickly shift tonal gears, veering between physical comedy and heartbreaking pathos often with a single look, word, or pause,” writes Demi Kampakis at Reverse Shot. Leigh Singer, too, writing for Sight & Sound, admires Panahi’s “expert balance of knockabout humor and slowly tightening tension, intimate cramped car sequences and extended long takes against wide vistas. Impromptu karaoke scenes to Iranian pop tunes can switch from hilarious to heartbreaking in an instant.”

Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov finds that Panahi’s direction “effectively cuts through the film’s gravitas, and Hit the Road ends up being fairly singular with regards to usual offerings from his national cinema. For one, he’s not shy about including surrealist touches, including a hand-drawn piano on the father’s cast which allows the youngest son to play the film’s non-diegetic music, and a star-gazing interlude in the film’s final act that sees a grassy hill transform into a bottomless galaxy of stars.” IndieWire’s David Ehrlich points out that “for all of the familiar ingredients that Panahi stirs into the mix—the subtle flourishes of self-reflexivity, his father’s dry sense of humor and broad political rebelliousness, Kiarostami’s penchant for staging critical dramatic moments in ultra-wide long shots—Hit the Road is the work of a filmmaker in full command of their own voice.”

Belgian writer-director Laura Wandel’s Playground, the winner of the FIPRESCI Prize for the best film to premiere in the Un Certain Regard program in Cannes, won London’s award for best first feature. Focusing on Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a young girl arriving at a new school with her older brother, Abel (Günter Duret), Playground “has a visceral ability to capture beautifully and clearly how we are shaped by our experiences, and through an insular setting shows us a microcosm for the human condition, laying bare the power dynamics of people,” said jury president Isabel Sandoval. “It left us wanting to see more from this bold, audacious filmmaker.”

At In Review Online, Ben Flanagan writes that the “recognizable misery of settling into the structure and rituals of school life is taken to a new level of abjection” in Playground. “From the taste of chlorine to the dampness of an autumn playground, the film skillfully evokes the heightened senses of a child. It does this through a rigid formality: almost every shot follows Nora in close up, in extreme shallow focus, as she navigates the school.”

The jury also gave a special commendation to Laura Samani’s Small Body “for its intense naturalism and fable-like qualities, that immersed us in another world.” Set in 1900, the film centers on Agata (Celeste Cescutti), who has given birth to a stillborn child and sets out to rescue her baby from purgatory by having it baptized at a mountain sanctuary. At CineVue, John Bleasdale finds that Small Body “has the rooted magic of an Italo Calvino short story.”

Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) won the Grierson Award for best documentary for Becoming Cousteau, “a fascinating look at the life of Jacques Cousteau,” said jury president Kim Longinotto, “but more importantly it highlights the most pressing issue of our time, climate change, and urges us all to take action now.” London’s audience award went to Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava, Lebanon, in which a family leaves the polluted congestion of Beirut for a mountain retreat—only to discover that a landfill is to be dug right outside their new home. At Cineuropa, Kaleem Aftab writes that “the simmering tension of unresolved disputes contrasts with the electricity of first love in a dazzling debut, heralding a striking new cinematic voice.”

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