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movie review

Art defies power in ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’

Director Mohammad Rasoulof bases his film on actual events in Iran in the late ’90s and their aftermath.

Kino Lorber

Director Mohammad Rasoulof bases his film on actual events in Iran in the late ’90s and their aftermath.

Not since Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” (1970) has a film captured the spiritual, psychological, and physical torture of a tyrannical regime the way that “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” manages to do. And none since Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” (1945) has been made under such trying circumstances.

Iranian authorities had arrested Mohammad Rasoulof along with Jafar Panahi, whose “Closed Curtain” has also screened recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, in 2010 during protests following the disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both men were sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban from filmmaking. Unlike Panahi, Rasoulof was eventually released. He, too, continued to make provocative movies, including “Manuscripts,” which was shot guerrilla-style partly in Iran. It screened in Cannes and other festivals to critical acclaim. The director subsequently lay low with his family in Germany for a while until he returned to his homeland last year. The police immediately confiscated his passport; his current status is uncertain.

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The government, even under the new, more moderate leadership of President Hassan Rouhani, has reason for concern. Unlike Rasoulof and Panahi’s previous, more metaphorical films, this one confronts its subject head-on with unflinching candor.

Based on actual events from the late ’90s and their aftermath, it begins in medias res, almost like Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994), as two hit men, Khosrow and Morteza, flee the scene of a job. Khosrow bears a bloody handprint on his throat. Their target and their employers as yet are a mystery, as they avoid discussing the assignment and engage in small talk like the hit men in Tarantino’s film.

Khosrow, who seems down-and out and desperate and resembles Al Pacino’s Serpico, complains that his promised fee has not been transferred to his account. He needs to pay the hospital bills for his sick kid. Nonetheless, throughout the film he insists he’s not doing the dirty work just for the money. So if he’s not being disingenuous in saying this, what does motivate him?

Intercut with Khosrow’s woes are scenes in which a poet and a writer, the latter in a wheelchair (artists and intellectuals in this film seem a rather moribund lot), share a bottle of forbidden vodka as they discuss how best to publish and disseminate a tell-all underground book by one of their colleagues. And if they succeed in doing so, it is argued, will anyone read it or care? If the film shows its hand at all, it is in these scenes, in which the poet, cynical and defeatist, condemns the current young generation as all politically apathetic. “The kids have Steve Jobs as their idol,” he laments.

Whatever the potential audience may be for the book, the mind police are taking it very seriously. In particular the editor of the biggest official newspaper, a former dissident himself, who had repented his apostasy and was rewarded with his cushy position and the authority to hunt down all his subversive colleagues. He takes this case personally, as the book contains incriminating information about him.

With the slow development, abrupt catastrophe, and inevitable circularity of historical calamities, Rasoulof artfully reveals the connections between these three story lines. He employs long takes and aspires to a joyless, fly-blown realism like that of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Killing” (1988). In such a country, Rasoulof implies, there can be no heroes, or even villains, only victims.

The title, though, offers hope. It comes from a line in Mikhail Bulgakov’s whimsically anarchistic “The Master and Margarita,” written under similarly oppressive circumstances during the Stalin era and not published until 1967. Stalin and the Soviet Union are no more. Bulgakov’s book remains, read by millions, inspiring lives. Maybe the same will be true of Rasoulof’s film.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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