Written by Dariush Mehrjui
Directed by Dariush Mehrjui
Hamoun, playing at the TIFF Lightbox on Sunday 28th March, was voted the best Iranian film of all time in 1997 within film critic circles in Iran. It was directed by Dariush Mehrjui, the Tehran-born giant of Iranian cinema, and one of the co-founders of the most modern end of Iranian New Wave cinema.
Middle-class professional man Hamid Hamoun is floundering around in life after news that his wife Mahshid wants to divorce him. He is an elegant wastrel, struggling to finish his PhD on the ancient and holy tale of Abraham and his sacrifice: one of the first scenes in Hamoun shows the pages of his academic work being blown around by the breeze, helplessly, landing everywhere and nowhere. The film employs Fellini-esque flashbacks and dream sequences, a fitting mode of narrative which sees Hamid chase the past and try to hunt down where and when everything went wrong in his marriage. Mahshid aggravates him because she is heavy on the wallet: her capricious personal projects, from dress design to abstract painting bother him, and Hamid seems to feel especially threatened when she becomes successful in her art, and members of wealthy society turn up to her exhibitions with their cheque books. More deeply, the problem is about Hamid’s own despair at his wife’s being outwith his control: she is a moneyed beauty from a social class above his, with a rich father who never approved of her choice of husband.
Released in 1990, well after the 1979 Iranian revolution, Hamoun still has some of the sheen of the new, set in an fairly westernised Iran branching out into non-traditional modes of thought: abstract art, Zen, Kirkegaard. Certain things are still entrenched, though, and everywhere in the film there is the push and pull of conflicting imperatives: Mahshid goes to a psychiatrist early on in the film to try to unburden herself of the shackles of her situation, but after she recounts the time when Hamid hit her, she is told that “it is common for all Iranian men to tyrannize”, and that’s the end of it. Later in the film, she and Hamid start throwing things at each other – he kicks a pot of paint over her, unwittingly turning her into an abstract impression of his fears and frustrations. The issue of divorce is deadlocked, with Mahshid being told that ultimately the courts will decide if she can initiate proceedings.
Films which star a conflicted man in a romantic relationship quite often see him chasing his buddies for help, and this male friendship deepening pleasingly. So it is here: Hamid’s friend Ali turns up several times (or is it part of a dream?). He is a spiritual leader of sorts, answering Hamid’s questions about the startling story of Abraham and Isaac, and points to Hamid’s own lack of faith. Hamid really has a mid-life crisis going on, and reminded me slightly of a less wisecracking Woody Allen – neurotic in midlife, flailing around in relationships, his son a footnote to the rest of it all – but where in Allen’s films the doubt about the existence of God is part of the overall confusion, here, the prevailing presence of Islam seems to bind all Hamid’s questions to the divine. Might there be reason and meaning in his wife’s dissatisfaction? God may not definitely exist in Hamoun, but His shadow certainly does, and all Hamid’s questions can’t help but rise heavenward.
Hamoun is a film with a main character who is deeply flawed, but given room to breathe by the filmmaker. You might well cheer Hamid on, without approving of everything he does: the strange and enjoyable empathy of the cinema is at work here. The not knowing quite what is dream or reality is instrumental in this – certain sequences appear to be real and then turn out to be imaginary, so the viewer is bound to Hamid’s muddled perspective. Hamid remarks that he has lost track of time, and there is an ethereal, somnolent sense in the film that we are sleepwalking alongside him. Everything is dreamscape. It is said that if you dream about a library, you are in search of knowledge. A couple of scenes are set amongst books, and they change hands at a few points throughout – Fear and Trembling, and Franny and Zooey, perhaps an early nod towards Mehrjui’s 1995 Pari, which was loosely based on the book by JD Salinger. The shelves of books in the film, out of reach of the viewer and mostly ignored by Hamid, seem to have a ghostly potentia, as if Hamid’s problems could be solved by looking inside them.
It is always a joy to watch a film in which heartache, something most of us can relate to, has been alchemised into something deep, abiding and voluptuous, and in this case, fresh 25 years on. In the same sort of way that blues music hardly ever ends up being depressing, the film’s sometimes thorny subjects have been transformed into something pleasing and magical. Mehrjui has a real lightness of touch, and he spins the topics of gender and relationships in Iran into gold. Hamoun is sometimes jagged, but it is never oppressive. It’s a film very interesting to secular-society eyes: it is hard not to admire a filmmaker who came of age in a time and place where he had to contend with censorship, and had the resilience to fight it. Although Mehrjui largely shed his religious faith at a young age, the world-weary western heart might be soothed by the notion that a relationship in trouble may have significance outside itself: perhaps the ghosts of relationships past float skyward, embracing whatever may live there.