In what may be a DVD Verdict first, Judge Bryan Byun draws parallels between Woody Allen and the protagonist of an acclaimed Iranian drama.
In 1997, Hamoun was voted the best Iranian film ever made by a survey of Iranian film critics.
Dariush Mehrjui's 1990 film Hamoun is a rambling, seriocomic journal of a disintegrating marriage, as seen through the eyes of Hamid Hamoun (Khosro Shakibai), an upper-middle-class Iranian import-export executive and amateur philosopher. Hamoun is thrown into a midlife crisis when his wife Mahshid (Bita Farahi), a successful artist, demands a divorce. (Under Iranian law, a wife cannot obtain a divorce without the husband's consent.) Hamoun, feeling his world breaking up beneath his feet, refuses to grant his consent, and embarks upon a fragmented journey into his past as he struggles to make sense of his life and figure out where it went wrong. Surreal dream sequences and flashbacks to happier days are woven into episodic glimpses of Hamoun seeking answers to his spiritual questions from sources ranging from Kierkegaard to Islam, from a missing mentor to his family elders.
Hamoun is most effective when Mehrjui applies his influences (most notably Fellini's 8 1/2) with a lighter touch and allows his characters to emerge as human beings instead of artistic constructs. Hamoun initially comes across as something out of a Woody Allen movie, and it isn't until his descent from neurotic perplexity to full-blown depressive breakdown (at one point he literally attempts to bury himself) that his philosophical and spiritual quest feels like something true and sincere, rather than the kind of self-indulgent navel gazing that typically accompanies films about intellectuals in the throes of midlife crises. One can't accuse Mehrjui of vanity, however; his largely self-reflexive protagonist is presented as a self-centered, pretentious jerk, a brittle and insecure man who resents his wife's artistic success and feels burdened by her own spiritual searchings. This unsympathetic self-portrayal doesn't make Hamoun any easier to watch, but it does make for an honest portrait of the existential confusion of a middle-aged man in modern Iranian society.
First Run's DVD of Hamoun presents the film in full frame, with a badly worn print that often looks washed out and murky, especially in the early scenes. The film isn't helped, either, by burned-in subtitles that unfortunately render much of the dialogue unreadable whenever the white text appears over a bright background. Audio, presented in Dolby Digital mono in the original Farsi, is muddy and hollow-sounding, but acceptable for a film that relies mostly on dialogue.
Extras are sparse but informative, with a text-based set of notes on the film by Godfrey Cheshire, a leading scholar of Iranian cinema, as well as a text biography of director Mehrjui (who directed another popular Iranian film, The Cow), and a photo gallery. There's also a set of trailers, some for films by Mehrjui, like 1997's Leila, but also for The Deserted Station by Abbas Kiarostami, who may be more familiar to Western audiences as the director of the acclaimed films A Taste of Cherry and The White Balloon.
For many viewers, Hamoun may be more interesting for its inside view of Iranian middle-class society than for its story, which follows a predictable path enlivened only by a rather odd and ambiguous conclusion. Hamoun's frantic groping for meaning is entertaining enough in its portrayal of spiritual confusion, but provides less real insight than confessional soul-searching.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Film Notes by Godfrey Cheshire
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