It’s a sign of the times that for its 20th anniversary, the Boston Festival of Films From Iran can’t boast the legendary names of past years, such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, or Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose work has defined modern Iranian cinema. Political turmoil and government suppression of Iran’s artists has made mounting the event difficult and resulted in a smaller festival running Saturday through Jan. 31 at the Museum of Fine Arts. But the eight diverse films in this year’s edition offer evidence of a steadfastly vibrant cinema in Iran, a remarkable feat considering the conditions that many filmmakers, both in the country and in exile, endure.
One of Iran’s more celebrated filmmakers, Bahman Ghobadi (“No One Knows About Persian Cats”) made the festival’s opening film, “Rhino Season,” in Turkey, where he’s lived since government officials pressured him to leave Iran in 2009. Ghobadi has said that his haunting love story spanning three decades was inspired by the incarceration of a family friend, a Kurdish poet, played in the film by the veteran Iranian star Behrouz Vossoughi. But the film also parallels Ghobadi’s own struggles. In “Rhino Season,” the poet is jailed along with his wife (played by the Italian actress Monica Bellucci) on trumped-up charges. In 2009, Ghobadi’s girlfriend and writing partner, journalist Roxana Saberi, was arrested for espionage and, in a sham trial that was reported around the world, sentenced to eight years imprisonment. She was released three months later and moved to the United States; Ghobadi also never returned to Iran. “Rhino Season” screens this Saturday at 7 p.m. and Jan. 20 at 12:30 p.m.
Two excellent documentaries provide a powerful look at life in Iran today. Till Schauder and Sara Nodjoumi’s “The Iran Job” (Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 26 at 1 p.m.) is ostensibly about American basketball star Kevin Sheppard, who signs to play for a new team in the Iranian league (basketball is hugely popular in the country). It’s entertaining to see the jovial but competitive Sheppard navigate his way around a fledgling team and an unfamiliar country; a scene where he and a Serbian teammate find and decorate what passes for a Christmas tree is funny and touching. But when Sheppard befriends a trio of young Iranian women, the film turns into a subtle and sorrowful portrait of what it’s like to be young, smart, and female in Iran today. Sheppard gets an unexpected political and social education, particularly when he witnesses the uprising in the streets in protest of the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Another young woman seeking to assert her independence is at the center of “Nessa” (Jan. 26 at 11:30 a.m.). In this cinema vérité portrait, filmmaker Loghman Khaledi follows Nessa to theater auditions and to her job as a puppeteer on a children’s TV show — a career choice that draws violent backlash from her conservative Kurdish-Iranian family. Her volatile brother, in particular, expresses outrage that Nessa wants to be an actress more than she wants to marry and have children. All of this takes a severe psychological toll, with Nessa tearfully explaining to the camera that she’s torn between family loyalty and personal ambition.
Leila Hatami, star of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” plays a screen actress named Leili in “The Last Step” (Jan. 26 at 3 p.m; Jan. 27 at 1 p.m.), a complex weaving of past and present directed by and costarring Hatami’s real-life husband, Ali Mossafa. “The Last Step” is literal: a defect in the staircase leading to the Tehran home built by Leili’s husband, architect Koshrow (Mosaffa). It’s also figurative, since Koshrow’s mysterious death at the start of the film drives the action. As Leili shoots a movie, “The Last Step” emerges as a murder mystery, love triangle, black comedy, and poetic meditation on mortality. Partly based on both Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the film’s nonlinear structure isn’t always easy to follow, but the lyrical tone and solid acting distinguish it.
One rarely associates Iranian cinema with comedy but “No Men Allowed” (Jan. 27 at 3 p.m.) offers plenty of silliness from Rambod Javan, one of Iran’s most popular TV comedy stars. In a plot that wouldn’t be out of place on an American sitcom, star chemistry students at an all-girls school plot to ignite sparks between the stern principal, Ms. Darabi (Vishka Asayesh), and the school’s first male instructor, the rumpled, bumbling Mr. Jebeli (Reza Attaran). Mani Haghighi is in fine form as the dapper father of the instigating student, Pariya (Pegah Ahangarani). Romantic comedy is apparently a popular genre in Iran, but rarely seen outside the country.
Haghighi turns up again as the star and director of “A Modest Reception” (Jan. 30 and 31 at 7 p.m.). The film at first appears to be farce as a Tehran couple, Kaveh and Leyla (played by Haghighi and Taraneh Alidoosti), drive through Iran’s mountainous hinterlands in their Lexus, stopping to distribute bags of money to befuddled peasants, whose reactions they shoot on a cellphone. Gradually, the couple’s efforts turn perverse, even sadistic, and hint at something darker in both Kaveh and Leyla. As the film shifts between satire and psychological thriller, Haghighi offers a chilling peek into the corrupting influence of power.
For a complete schedule and ticket information, go to www.mfa.org.