A Film a Week - The Alien / Namo

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
This year's edition of Berlinale is not riddled with political scandals like it was the case one year ago, when films were pulled out of the festival even if they were selected for the official competition, or barely made it to the festival after all. It was an "interesting" year for Chinese cinema, with the government fortifying itself by the means of censorship. This year's biggest attempt at scandal also comes from Asia, but from a different part of the continent - from Iran. Nader Saeivar's directorial debut "The Alien" was set to premiere at Forum sidebar of Berlinale, and the principal question was would Saeivar and his crew be able to leave the country and travel to Berlin. They made it.

"The Alien" opens with an establishing shot typical for Iranian cinema, a long, fixed camera shot of a shop's front in the afternoon. In the corner of the shot, there is a car that seems quite ordinary. The static shot converts into a slow zooming into the shop itself, showing the ordinary activities in the neighbourhood: the local teacher comes to buy something on his way back to work, the owner is arguing with his son, some other neighbours drop by. When the action moves outside, the parked car is still there.

Rinse-repeat for the next day. And the day after that. The car is still there. And in Iran, it could mean just one thing: the people inside it are on a stake-out mission. Being the new lad in the 'hood, and possibly even new to the town, the teacher Bakhtiar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei) becomes the prime suspect among his neighbours to be the reason for the car being there. His withdrawn, even secretive attitude does not help either, and his refusal to conduct himself according to the unwritten rules of the community (instead of cooperating, he basically ignores the car and the people in it) could put the final nail in his social reputation coffin.

The pressure on him multiplies, not just in the neighbourhood, but also at his job, where he needs to pass the final exam and the suitability interview in order to get his permanent teaching license, and in his own home where he is constantly between his ailing father and his not exactly patient wife (Sevil Shirgi). Will he be able to handle it all or will he become a victim of other people's paranoia?

There is a lot of it in the context and the subtext of this slow-paced film. Firstly, Bakhtiar and his family come from the ranks of Kurdish minority in an ethnically mixed unnamed town. And minority and ethnically mixed environments are more prone to get some more unwanted attention from the central government in dangerous mix of theocracy and bureaucracy, which Iran is. Finaly, in a paranoid, controlling society, everybody has some kind of secret to keep, not just Bakhtiar, but also his wife, all the neighbours, friends and acquaintances. The difference between him and the rest is that he does not want to pretend any more.

Nader Saeivar is a screenwriter by trade, and for his work he was already awarded, for instance in Cannes for the script he co-wrote with the legendary dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi for the latter's film "3 Faces". Script-wise, this is a cooperation of the same two people and it proves to be the best aspect of the film, as new and new layers come to light in perfect timing. However, some of the dialogue lines are overly explanatory, which, combined with the theatrics in acting, results in off-key line delivery.

It also shows that, unlike Panahi for whom the filmmaking is simply the calling, Nader Saeivar as a filmmaker needs more practice in order to to learn the aspects of the job he has not mastered yet. He knows how to recognize an important story and to tell it in an intelligent way, but the narcoleptic pace, the insisting on concentric circles-type of structure and overly expressive acting by most of the cast members pretty much annul the positive aspects. With better directorial control and some more determined editing, "The Alien" would not be just a decent, yet politically important film that shows its maker's potential. It would be a properly good one.

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