Judge Michael Rankins was just grateful this Iranian film didn't smell like the Ayatollah's sweat socks.
"The thought of death did not bother me a bit. When a filmmaker doesn't make films or a writer doesn't write, that is death. I'm not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of living a futile life."—Bahman Farjami (Bahman Farmanara)
Imagine not being able to practice your chosen profession for two decades of your adult life, not because of lack of ability or resources on your part, but because of the capricious whims of a repressive government.
Now imagine that when you once again have the opportunity to do the one thing you love more than anything else in life, you're given—by that very same repressive government—the perfect opportunity to comment publicly on the censorship that has shackled your talents for so long.
Welcome to the world of Bahman Farmanara.
Facts of the Case
When the story opens with the subtitle, "Act One: A Bad Day," Bahman Farjami (Bahman Farmanara) has little idea exactly how bad it's going to get.
It's the fifth anniversary of the death of Bahman's wife of 30 years. On his way to visit his wife's Jaleh's gravesite, the grieving widower stops to give a female hitchhiker a ride, only to learn that the woman has given birth to a stillborn child just the day before. When Bahman arrives at the cemetery, he discovers that the burial plot he had purchased for himself adjacent to his wife's is already occupied by another decedent. The cemetery director shows little compassion for Bahman's plight—"99% of men don't want to be with their wives when they're alive." Upon returning to his car, Bahman discovers that his erstwhile passenger has abandoned the corpse of her dead infant in the backseat. On the drive home, Bahman's sister calls—her husband has gone missing. Lastly, to add injury to a torrent of insults, Bahman has a mild heart attack.
Bahman is accustomed to rotten luck. Once a respected motion picture director, the Islamic government of Iran has refused him permission to make a film for the past 24 years. Today, Bahman makes his living creating documentaries for Japanese television. His current project is a feature about Iranian funeral rituals—a subject that, with all the turmoil going on in Bahman's body and life, seems awkwardly pertinent. Faced with the specter of his own mortality, Bahman dives into his documentary with a singular vision—a vision that may change his life forever…or end it.
Like the semi-autobiographical character he portrays in his film Smell Of Camphor, Fragrance Of Jasmine, director Bahman Farmanara spent two decades being prohibited from practicing his craft due to government censorship. From the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 until almost 22 years later, every script Farmanara submitted to the commission that oversees Iran's film industry was summarily rejected. In the intervening years, he worked for a film distributor in Canada—ironically, making his living promoting other people's films, while he himself was forbidden to make any—before returning to Iran to oversee his family's successful textile factory. Farmanara was as stunned as anyone when his deeply personal script about a once-great film director making his first motion picture after decades of government interference was given the green light in 2000.
One might suppose that a film born out of such a repressive history would fairly seethe with anger, resentment, and bitterness. Surprisingly, Smell Of Camphor, Fragrance Of Jasmine is not that kind of film. In fact, what this writer expected to find a depressing experience is actually both life-affirming and gently humorous. Farmanara has clearly been bent by his experience with Iran's Islamic fundamentalist government, but he is neither broken nor bowed.
Instead, Farmanara uses this unexpected platform not to excoriate the Iranian power structure, but to examine his own foibles and fears. Through his eponymous avatar, the director places his own mortality—and his growing dread thereof—under a microscope, then pokes at it with ironic humor. Certainly, Farmanara takes a few swipes at the state of politics in his homeland, but he takes them obliquely. At one point, he pictures the fictional Bahman sitting in front of the television, watching with glassy-eyed ennui as a prominent Iranian leader prattles on endlessly. In another instance, when Bahman's brother-in-law disappears, the director searches local hospitals and morgues for clues, but at the same time asks his attorney to check into whether the missing man might have become a government detainee.
Farmanara's wry and peculiar take on life, and his use of unusual narrative devices—especially toward the end of the picture—have drawn comparisons to such Western directors as Federico Fellini and Woody Allen. While there are some slight similarities, I don't find such comparisons entirely apt. Farmanara's film, even at its most fantastical—and it doesn't travel down that road all that often—always makes perfect sense to me, where Fellini's often do not (at least, not on first viewing). And I don't find Farmanara quite as self-loathing as Allen. He's willing to be introspective and poke fun at himself, but I believe that, unlike Allen, Farmanara ultimately reaches a level of confident comfort with his inner self, despite his frailties.
The acting in Smell Of Camphor, Fragrance Of Jasmine offers a wealth of subtle, honest pleasures. Neither Farmanara nor any of the old friends he cast in this film were in danger of having to clear shelf space for any Hollywood honors, but from the first frame I genuinely believed in these people. I believed they existed, not just as characters in Farmanara's film, but as real people living these bizarre yet fascinating—from an American perspective—lives. Especially effective are Hossien Kasbian, an elderly gent who somewhat resembles the late character actor Patrick Cranshaw, as Bahman's devoted but hapless manservant, and Roya Nonahali as the hitchhiker with the dead baby and a pitiful tale of woe to tell.
For the Western viewer, Smell Of Camphor, Fragrance Of Jasmine opens a window into life in a country that most Americans know little about, and understand even less. I frankly was astonished at the modernity of urban Iranian life. Bahman and his male associates wear Western-style clothes (the women, as one would expect, wear chadors); Bahman drives a Mercedes-Benz, talks incessantly on a cell phone, and lives in a home not dramatically unlike those in my own neighborhood. Bahman's encounter with the hitchhiker, however, suggests the markedly different standard of life that exists in rural Iranian communities.
Some viewers may lose patience with the leisurely pace and measured emotional level of Farmanara's film. For those willing to give it a chance, however, the director presents a thoughtful and challenging—as well as universally resonant—look at growing old and living life on one's own terms as much as one can, given the political climate. If you're a man or woman of a certain age, you'll identify with Bahman's tussle with mortality and the value of one's personal legacy. It's a film well worth the 90 minutes you'll invest.
Unfortunately, the presentation of said film leaves much to be desired. Although it's certain that Farmanara made this film on a shoestring budget, I would hope the print used as source material for this New Yorker Films DVD isn't the best example extant. The visual experience here is dreadful—the print is washed out, grimy, and peppered with random film damage. It's not unwatchable, but it is without question distracting at times. The sound fares slightly better; the track is flat and a bit muddy in tone, but the dialogue can always be clearly heard, and probably understood, if you happen to speak Farsi. The English subtitles are plain and legible from across a living room. One production note: Although the DVD serves up the film in widescreen, it's letterboxed, not anamorphic, and admits as much on the packaging.
The only extras included are the film's brief theatrical trailer, and a handful of previews for other New Yorker Films offerings. Bahman Farmanara's real-life story is such an intriguing one that it borders on criminal that there's nothing in this package to place his film in the appropriate context. At the very least, the keep case insert could have offered some biographical background, so the viewer would know how closely the events of the film parallel Farmanara's life in some cases, and don't in others (for example, his wife is alive and well, or at least was at the time this film was made).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For the benefit of the curious, the title of the film refers to the use of camphor in Iranian burial rituals—and, to the lead character's chagrin, in some women's cosmetics—and its juxtaposition with jasmine, which Bahman associates with growing up in his mother's home in happier times. Think Ben Casey: life, death, infinity.
Do you recall the closing narration from the classic crime series Naked City? "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Smell Of Camphor, Fragrance Of Jasmine left me with that same feeling about the people of Iran. There must be millions of stories about the sometimes tragic effects the Islamic fundamentalist regime has wrought on their lives. I was a little sorrowful at the end of this film that I won't have the opportunity to see and hear many more of those stories.
Not guilty. After all, the Iranian Film Commission said so.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Theatrical Trailer
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