A Film a Week - Hit the Road / Jaddeh Khaki

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Panah Panahi is the son of the acclaimed Iranian dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi, the winner of many prizes at the top film festivals and the auteur who was sentenced to 6 years in prison and 20-year filmmaking ban for his socially critical work. Panah inhereted his father’s filmmaking talent, got his filmmaking education and learned the tricks of the trade by assisting his father and even co-editing his film “3 Faces” (2018). “Hit the Road” is Panahi Junior’s feature directing debut that was selected for Directors Fortnight at Cannes. We had the chance to see it at Sarajevo’s Open Air section.

Hit the Road opens to the sounds of Chopin’s piano music over the black screen before the action starts in the car. A hyperactive, obviously bored boy (Rayan Sarlak), pretend-plays the keyboard drawn on the cast on his father’s (Hassan Madjooni) leg. The mother (Pantea Panahiha of “Breath” and “I Am Diego Maradona” fame) sits on the front seat, while the elder brother (Amir Simiar) is the driver. There is a sense of secrecy around the family road trip, it certainly is not a vacation, the car is a rental and the cell phones are forbidden. It actually has something to do with the sullen and largely silent much older brother, the kid brother is told the reason for his trip abroad (illegally crossing the border) is the prospect of marriage, but the story rings fake. By the end of the film, we shall know more.

The trip itself has many bumps and situations on the way to keep us interested according to the laws of the dramaturgy, but “Hit the Road” is not a film of much action. Everyone in the family plays a certain role, the kid is a little menace and a sort-of comic relief, the bearded father is cynical in order to hide his true emotions and fears, the mother is empathetic, but stoic, suggesting that she shares a special bond with his older son, while the big brother is somewhat mysterious. There is also the sick family dog as a plot device or a metaphor of sorts that highlights the unease of the situation. The film is actually about the family relations and the emotional weight of one of the family members parting.

Panahi directs his first feature with style and elegance, channeling the energy and the hypnotic feeling of the masters of his father’s generation of Iranian filmmakers. Some of the scenes he carefully sets and shoots are a prime example of visual poetry, some others feel a notch too staged, but for a good reason. At one point, he even takes a trip out of the realistic realm he keeps his film grounded in for the rest of the film.

The acting is stellar and energetic, albeit the characters sometimes fit the well-known types and the family bickering is somewhat of a genre of its own. Pantea Panahiha occupies the emotional center of the film with grace and integrity, Hassan Madjooni balances well between the world-weariness and wit of his character, Amin Simiar is efficient as the quiet, worried one, while the sheer energy Sarlak is the proper discovery of the film.

Aesthetically, “Hit the Road” is a wonderful to look at. Amin Jafari’s cinematography captures the beauty of the natural surroundings in Northern Iran, while the smart editing by Ashkan Mehri and Amir Etminan induces some interesting rhythm changes in an overall deliberately slow pace. In the end, “Hit the Road” is nothing short of an impressive feature debut, making Panah Panahi one of the exciting new voices of the Iranian cinema.

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