"It says an agent will come, not a woman."
Somewhere in the idea of the task of collecting votes on election day in a remote area where voters are disinterested at best, there is probably an interesting film. Unfortunately, Secret Ballot is not that film. The story is simple. Early one morning, a box containing all the material necessary for voting on election day is parachuted to a remote island off the coast of Iran. There, it is picked up by one of the two guards charged with maintaining an official Iranian presence. An agent to administer the voting will be dropped off by boat at 8:00AM. Shockingly, to the guard, the agent is a woman and only reluctantly does he agree to take her around the island in his military jeep to conduct the voting. The woman is eager at first, but she soon finds that getting people to vote is difficult indeed and her encounters with various individuals and groups of potential voters are increasingly unfruitful.
One senses the film's objectives: to make an amusing statement about the voting process in general, to illuminate the limited freedom of women in Iran and the lack of respect for those who have any sort of position of authority, and to show how one man's opinion can be influenced by spending his day with a woman so obviously dedicated to her task no matter how frustrating. I say "senses" because the film lacks any urgency, energy, or forcefulness in its storytelling. The director, Babak Payami, misses opportunities to deliver in these respects because of a very impersonal approach to shooting the film. There is an overabundance of long shots, static scenes, lengthy silences, and abrupt ends to scenes that just leave one looking at one's watch in boredom, longing for the film to end. Unfortunately, it all drags on for an hour and three-quarters, ending with a somewhat ludicrous whimper. The result is an opportunity lost to shed a little light on an area of the world and a society little-known to many.
Films that don't depend on frenetic action, but appeal to an audience's fascination with the human condition through force of thoughtful filmmaking, careful character development, and innovative storytelling are always welcome. Too often, however, just because a film is made outside North America, there's a tendency in the critical community to overlook the lack of such characteristics in its rush to anoint the effort as the latest antidote to the current Hollywood blockbuster. To some extent, Secret Ballot has been accorded this treatment, but in my opinion it is unwarranted. If I want to watch paint dry, I can do it in the comfort of my own home and save the DVD purchase or rental cost. You'll do yourself a favour by doing likewise.
For the record, Columbia's DVD presentation is a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks quite crisp and clear. Colours are generally bright and natural-looking. Some edge effects do intrude upon an otherwise admirable effort, however. A Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track in Farsi is provided, although its impact is little different from a standard stereo mix. English and French subtitles are offered. Supplements consist of the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for Not One Less and The Road Home, two Chinese films that appear to be infinitely more entertaining than Secret Ballot.
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