Judge Daryl Loomis has tried many times to make a traditional moussaka, but every attempt ends in frustration. After throwing his efforts in the trash, he pops another frozen pizza in the oven, which he eats with tears in his eyes.
Can't a woman just make a little moussaka in peace?
In 2000, Kambuzia Partovi, the director of Border Cafe, wrote the screenplay for the highly acclaimed The Circle, about the desperation of three Iranian Women. The tagline of The Circle was, "Her only crime was being a woman," and the same line could have been used for Border Cafe. That's not to say it's a rehash of old ideas; stories about women's issues from the Middle East are too rare and far too necessary to ever seem derivative. This story of a desperate woman's struggle for independence takes a form similar to films like Tampopo and Babette's Feast, in which the joy of food can reveal that power in women is often fearsome to men.
Facts of the Case
Reyhan (Fereshteh Sadre Orafasi, The Circle), a recently widowed Iranian woman, has inherited her late husband's cafe on the border of Iran and Turkey. Her amazing dishes make the restaurant extremely popular with the truckers passing through, but no matter how well she cooks, the simple action of a woman running a business is disgraceful to her husband's family. In order to save face and, coincidentally, save his own restaurant from failing due to the popularity of Reyhan's, her brother-in-law Nasser (Parviz Parastoei) demands she marry him and give up her shameful actions. Her refusal sends the family into turmoil, and Nasser will go to any length to shut her down.
Border Cafe begins just after the death of Reyhan's husband. We meet her and her two young daughters as she prepares to reopen her restaurant. Very little back story is given; all we know is that her intentions have mortified her in-laws. Reyhan is not motivated to destroy Iranian culture or tradition, her only desires are to cook, the one skill she feels comfortable about herself, and to take care of her children who, by far, are the most important things in her life. Reyhan is strong and full of love, beautiful in every way, but the only people who can see this are the foreigners she comes in contact with. A Russian vagabond becomes stranded at the restaurant, and out of sheer compassion for her plight, Reyhan takes her in and teaches her some of what she knows. A Greek trucker shows up one day to rest and becomes enchanted by her cooking, but quickly falls in love with her and her daughters through Reyhan's strength. All the Iranians can see, however, is her gender. By using tradition and appealing to the perceived weakness of women, Nasser brings the government into the community's simple life in an attempt to destroy Reyhan's spirit and bring her to her rightful station of subservience. By all rights, and in a less even-handed film, Nasser's actions would imply pure selfish villainy. Part of the value of Border Cafe is in its fairness. Old tradition is so ingrained in Nasser that he doesn't think to question his role in Reyhan's life. Whether he wants to or not, his obligation is to take care of his brother's family, and he can't truly care for Reyhan if she is independently running a business. He really does feel that he's doing the right thing, and his attempts are thrown back in his face. He cannot change his ways and cannot understand how Reyhan would undermine these simple facts of Iranian culture.
Structurally, Border Cafe is a slow roast of a movie. The story moves at a snail's pace, yet the plot almost magically emerges with seemingly none of the typical devices. The Greek suitor or Russian vagabond subplots could have played out in more melodramatic fashion, but Partovi understands the importance of restraint both in the characterizations and in the plotline. Nothing feels forced; everything in the story grows organically out of the vast Iranian desert. The traditional Iranian music is beautiful but muted, accenting the action without overpowering anything. The photography is fantastic, but not flashy. It sets the brightly painted buildings very nicely against the brown and tan backdrops, giving a sense of realism without making the film look like a documentary. The actors perform beautifully, and especially the two leads. Orafasi and Parastoei work magic together to give the very natural animosity between them a weight that, again, feels completely unforced. Orafasi gives Reyhan great silent strength and Parastoei (husband of the director) reveals a very conflicted, well-meaning but horrible, Nasser. Everybody in the film is quite good, but the two leads are extremely impressive in the depth of their performances.
First Run Features is to be commended in principle for their release of Border Cafe, as well as the other films in their Global Lens Collection, but I really wish they had spent more time and energy cleaning up the print. For a film that is a mere three years old, the transfer looks like a well-worn VHS copy with its unnaturally muted colors and black levels that are dotted with muddled reddish-brown tints. It's unfortunate that a film this good would look so bad. First Run isn't necessarily noted for their restoration efforts, but they could have done a much better job here. The stereo sound is a little better, but still not great. The dialogue and music are clear, but there are definite hisses and pops during quieter times. It certainly doesn't ruin the film, but it does take something away from this beautiful film, especially since there's little to no chance of a re-release.
I haven't seen a lot of Iranian film, or Middle Eastern film in general, but if Border Cafe is exemplary of the film industry from the region, I must see more. Maybe it moves a little more slowly than I would ordinarily like, but it works well in the context of the story. Partovi's even-handedness is impressive, especially in the treatment of the antagonist, who is villainous but still very human. I am excited to see more work from Partovi, though I hope that better care is given to the work of this very promising Iranian artist.
Border Cafe is cleared of any and all charges. First Run Features is
guilty of delivering a subpar release of a first rate film but is free to go
based on past excellence. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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