Ali Abbasi’s Top10
Born in Iran, Ali Abbasi gave up his studies at Tehran Polytechnic University in 2002 and traveled to Europe, where he finally settled in Stockholm, Sweden, to study architecture. In 2007, he graduated and subsequently enrolled at the National Film School of Denmark, where he studied directing. His first feature, Shelley, premiered in the Panorama section of the 2016 Berlinale. His new film Border is now in theaters.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom
This is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Even with the atrocities and torture, it has real texture and an aesthetic aspect to it. Even the shit looks special. Pasolini is a very dear person for me. You have people who are Christian filmmakers or left-wing filmmakers or liberal filmmakers, but then you have a person like him, just a gay leftist who made the best Bible movie ever. I think that says something about how he could catapult himself into these big political discussions in a way that not everyone can do. If Paul Greengrass made this movie, you would get something that would be interesting politically, but you wouldn’t get any kind of texture or beauty. So that’s what I really admire about Pasolini, that in the midst of all this torture and sadism the movie is still very beautiful and very unique.
I saw Great Expectations when I was maybe five or six years old. I actually don’t remember it as being an amazing movie, but it affected me very much. These characters, like Miss Havisham and the bandit, are etched into my mind. It’s very different from the costume dramas that are made nowadays because this actually has an authentic feel and some kind of primitiveness to it.
This is definitely on my list of the greatest movies ever. I saw it in the theater and it was the first time I actually experienced hypnosis in cinema—a conscious hypnosis. It’s one of the mysteries of filmmaking for me—why does it work, and how does it work?—but to be honest I don’t want to look into it because I want it to stay a mystery. If I were running the Library of Congress I would make a 70 mm copy of this and put it in a nuclear shelter, just in case.
Hiroshima mon amour
There’s something about formalism that’s a little bit like music, and you can lose yourself in the joy of it when you make movies because it’s so much fun. This is one of those very rare subzero love stories, but it works because it’s like modernist poetry. It’s like when you have really hot food and you put it in the freezer and then you taste a little bit and you can sense that it was really hot but it’s been chilled down. Formalism doesn’t get any better than this, and every time I think about associative logic, this film is what I am thinking of.
I don’t want to say much about La strada other than that it’s the reason why I am here. When you watch this movie, no matter who you are, you get the sense that this is something special that couldn’t have been made for television or heard as a radio play. It’s not Alain Resnais, it’s very accessible, and yet it has cinematic purity. This is a mark of how depressing the movie business has gotten—we don’t make these kinds of movies anymore, movies where there’s just a natural consensus that they’re good. Where you don’t have to wait for critics to say so, because everybody can feel it.
I love William S. Burroughs, and if anybody could do an adaptation of his work, it’s Cronenberg, who made this movie very true to the book. But the movie makes sense, and the book really doesn’t for me—the moment you think it’s starting to make sense, you lose it again. The movie is very cheap and kitschy at certain points yet very sophisticated at others. Naked Lunch is one of the few movies to depict hallucinations that are actually very close to how they really are. It’s not like when you see something like Inception, where the dream sequences are just the Hollywood idea of what a dream could be.
Belle de jour
Viridiana has a super fascistic message, but even if it goes against all my political beliefs, I still think it’s a fantastic movie. It’s a little bit like Salò in that it’s a very political movie but it transcends being just that. Whether you agree or disagree with it, it doesn’t matter. I love Buñuel’s playfulness, and I love the fact that he was nobody’s friend. Communists didn’t like him; Catholics didn’t like him; left-wing people didn’t like him; art people didn’t like him; art-movie lovers didn’t really love him at many points; mainstream moviegoers didn’t like him.
Belle de jour is everything that’s great about him and more. It’s also actually really entertaining. I would love to put this on for a bunch of Catholic nuns and evangelicals in a locked room and force their eyes open like in A Clockwork Orange. I would love to see how they would react.
For me, this created a whole new layer of filmmaking. It’s an amazing movie, and a little bit like La strada in that you don’t have to be a filmmaker or enthusiast to appreciate it. It just plays out like a really good documentary and a really good fiction, and it says a lot not only about Iranian society but about the human condition. This is the richest movie Kiarostami made, in my opinion, and it’s one of the best works of Iranian cinema.
I was completely unprepared when I saw Mulholland Dr. in a small art-house cinema in Stockholm, and it blew my mind. I came out of the movie and just felt like I needed to talk to people and ask questions, like, did you see what I saw? It was huge for me, and it almost felt like, you can’t mess with people like this and get away with it, somebody should do something about it. Usually when American cinema tries to be surreal or nonlinear or non-narrative, it turns either really pretentious or really Hollywood. But David Lynch, in this film but also in general, is probably the only person I know who has succeeded in making his own version of American surrealism.
The Color of Pomegranates
If David Lynch is the American take on surrealism, this is the Soviet take. Iranians share a lot of cultural references with people from Armenia, and seeing this, I almost saw a path through Iranian culture. The movie juxtaposes surreal elements from my culture without going through a Western gaze. It has some of the most amazing imagery I’ve ever seen.