“There are no bears. This is nonsense. Stories are made up to scare us,” a villager says in “No Bears,” the latest film from Iranian director, Jafar Panahi. Every film Panahi has made since his 2010 sentencing for “propaganda against the system” has been an act of political defiance, as the conviction barred him from making films or leaving the country.
While Panahi hasn’t left Iran, his “illegally made” films have been shown in festivals worldwide. Clever methods have ensured they get seen. For example, 2011′s “This Is Not a Film,” was smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive stashed in a cake.
At the Venice Film Festival last year, a symbolic empty chair was reserved for him at the screening of “No Bears,” which received a special prize from that festival’s jury. The film also took third place for best picture at this year’s National Society of Film Critics awards, and Panahi was nominated for best director.
In July 2022, Panahi was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for inquiring about a fellow filmmaker. His sentence was overturned in October, but his release did not happen until Feb. 3, two days after he started a hunger strike in protest.
These details are important when viewing Panahi’s work. His films are sly provocations that are often critical of laws or traditions; they look at characters through a humanist lens. Panahi usually plays a somewhat fictionalized version of himself, which adds a meta quality to his movies.
His character in “No Bears” is perhaps his least autobiographical iteration, but some truths remain. This “Jafar Panahi” still cannot leave the country, so he’s relocated from Tehran to a small village very close to the Iran-Turkey border. On the Turkish side, his assistant director Reza (Reza Heydari) is working on the fictional Panahi’s latest movie, communicating with him via a shaky Wi-Fi connection.
“No Bears” contains that film within a film, a documentary about two people, Bakhtiar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei) and Zara (Mina Kavani), who obtain illegal passports to leave Turkey. Zara’s passport, created by smugglers who run people across the Turkey-Iran border, has come through — but Bakhtiar’s has not. She will not leave him, despite him begging her to go. This delays production, though Reza keeps the cameras rolling.
Meanwhile, Panahi has unwittingly become embroiled in a local scandal, a love triangle between villagers Gozal (Darya Alei); Solduz (Amir Davari), the man she loves; and Jacob (Javad Siyahi), the man she’s been set to marry since birth. The trouble starts when Jacob accosts Panahi, believing that he has taken a picture of Gozal and Solduz together. That picture will serve as proof that Solduz is violating village law by pursuing Gozal.
In fact, the entire village thinks Panahi has this picture in his digital camera. Numerous people approach him at the apartment he rents from Ghanbar (Vahid Mobasheri), each with their own agenda. Panahi never took this picture, but his protests are ignored. The story of his ownership was passed along like a game of telephone.
Both narratives show forms of entrapment, whether based on governmental laws or provincial traditions. Panahi deftly juggles his stories, merging them together in the devastating final minutes of “No Bears.” The film ends on an image that, knowing what we now know about the real Panahi’s predicament, is all the more shattering upon reflection.
Written and directed by Jafar Panahi. Starring Panahi, Reza Heydari, Bakhtiyar Panjeei, Mina Kavani, Darya Alei, Amir Davari, Javad Siyahi. 106 minutes. At Coolidge Corner. Unrated
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.