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Boston Festival of Films From Iran more relevant than ever

Sareh Nour Mousavi in “Breath.”
Festival of Films from Iran
Sareh Nour Mousavi in “Breath.”

The annual Boston Festival of Films From Iran at the Museum of Fine Arts has long been a mandatory event for cinephiles. Iranian filmmakers produce some of the most compelling and challenging films in the world and there are few opportunities to see them outside major festivals.

But this festival’s importance has also grown on the world stage. The year began with an executive order from President Trump that intended to ban citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose “The Salesman” won the foreign-language Academy Award, chose not to attend the February Oscars ceremony in solidarity with those who stood to be affected by the travel ban.

Political and social repression continues to be a major theme in many of the films in this year’s festival, which runs Jan. 4-17. Farhadi’s influence can be found in Ali Asgari’s disquieting debut feature, “Disappearance” (screens Jan. 7 and 10), which follows Sara, a university student, and her boyfriend, Hamed (played by newcomers Sadaf Asgari and Amir Reza Ranjbaran), over the course of a night. It gradually becomes clear why the couple is discreetly trying to get Sara admitted to a hospital: There are complications from intercourse. Given Iran’s strict social mores, the unmarried couple is desperate to get help in secret, without the knowledge of their families. As they meet with bureaucracy and indifference from authorities, tensions and mistrust erupt between Sara and Hamed, conveyed through Asgari’s stark, naturalistic style.

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More ebullient but no less powerful in its critique of Iran’s repressive culture, particularly for girls, is Narges Abyar’s “Breath” (Jan. 7 and 11), winner of several festival awards and Iran’s entry for this year’s foreign film Oscar. Set in the late 1970s and early ’80s, as the shah is overthrown and the Ayatollah Khomeini rises to power, this bittersweet story of childhood innocence is narrated by 9-year-old, motherless Bahar (extraordinary first-timer Sareh Nour Mousavi), who lives in an impoverished village with her gentle, asthmatic father (Mehran Ahmadi) and his stepmother, “Granny” (Pantea Panahi Ha), a strict disciplinarian and traditionalist. Granny beats Bahar for sneaking into the outhouse to read and warns her that soon she will be forbidden to talk or play with her favorite male cousin. The smart and spirited Bahar escapes into books and her own drawings; the world of her imagination is depicted in animated sequences. Abyar’s 2014 film, “Trench 143,” which she adapted from her own novel, also dealt with the Iran-Iraq war though the eyes of women.

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Abbas Kiarostami, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, died of cancer in 2016. The festival has shown many of his masterpieces, including “Taste of Cherry” and “Certified Copy,” over the years and concludes this year’s festival with his final film, “24 Frames” (Jan. 14 and 17). It’s made up of 24 still images, mostly Kiarostami’s own black-and-white and color photographs, each onscreen for 4½ minutes. Kiarostami expands each still into live-action vignettes of empty beaches, snow falling on trees, birds, animals. Meditative and mesmerizing, it’s a mournful, fitting farewell.

For more information or a complete schedule go to www.mfa.org.

War without end

From another part of the world comes another subtle and compelling film about the aftermath of war, Ferenc Torok’s Hungarian feature “1945,” now playing at the West Newton Cinema. A father (Ivan Angelus) and his adult son (Marcell Nagy), both Orthodox Jews, arrive in a village in Hungary at the end of the war. Their presence and purpose — they are transporting trunks said to be filled with perfume or cosmetics — fuel gossip and speculation, particularly for Istvan (Peter Rudolf), who believes that the strangers are connected to the town’s deported Jews. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, the film is reminiscent of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” (2013) in its atmospheric rendering of a community trying to come to terms with the recent horrors they’ve experienced or perpetrated and would prefer to keep buried.

For more information go to www.westnewtoncinema.com.

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.