Image Credit: New Wave Films
Starring: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei
3 Faces opens with a young woman filming her suicide note via mobile. It’s the type of bold, confrontational scene we’ve come to expect from Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, now approaching the halfway mark of his 20-year ban from filmmaking enacted by Iranian authorities. In spite of this ban, 3 Faces is Panahi’s fourth feature film since the pronouncement of his sentence in 2010. While it may not reach the narrative perfection of his previous release Taxi Tehran or the raw emotional power of his sports film Offside, 3 Faces serves as a heartfelt portrayal of Panahi’s home region bordering Azerbaijan, and a meditation on an actress’s identity within the Iranian film industry. Despite the government’s best efforts, it’s also another acclaimed export from Iran, one of world cinema’s finest and most consistent contributors.
Like many of Panahi’s films, 3 Faces is a work of metafiction – one cheeky scene even includes Panahi’s mother asking him over the phone if he’s planning a new film, which he vehemently denies. Playing a fictionalised version of himself, Panahi agrees to help veteran Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself) after she receives a suicide video from an aspiring actress (Marziyeh Rezaei) from Panahi’s home province.
Further discussion of the plot would be somewhat counterproductive, but the film transforms into a road trip movie of sorts, heavily influenced by Panahi’s old mentor and cinematic legend, Abbas Kiarostami. Kiarostami’s 1992 film Life… And Nothing More exerts a particularly strong influence, and you could make the argument 3 Faces cribs its final shot from Kiarostami’s film. Of course, 3 Faces is its own entity, boasting a healthy dose of humour, Panahi’s trademark focus on women’s role in modern Iran, and significantly more discussion about foreskins than one may be led to believe.
Considering the film’s metafictional nature, Panahi does an exceptional job at keeping the script feel fluid and natural, as the seemingly spontaneous occurrences throughout 3 Faces are actually the result of dense and intricate plotting. In spite of the necessity for Panahi to work on a microbudget and in complete secrecy due to his ban, he manages to squeeze in some scenes with genuine visual flair – a particular pleasure is a seemingly impossible time-lapse shot of a character walking along the path. The entirely unbroken shot starts at dusk and finishes in total darkness, giving a two or three hour timeframe the appearance of maybe twenty seconds and left me scratching my head as to how it was accomplished.
Panahi’s return to his home region lends a particularly personal flavour to the film – on arrival at Marziyeh’s village, he struggles to remember how to speak Turkish, and one of the village elders admonishes him for forgetting his mother tongue. Behnaz Jafari’s inability to speak Turkish also serves as an indirect reminder that, perhaps because of the limited press coverage on the country, we forget Iran is not a monolith – it is home to many rich subcultures and regional divides.
The villagers’ frosty relationship with the young Marziyeh and their distaste of “entertainers”, a repeated term that couches Marziyeh as some sort of siren, can be interpreted as a fictionalised reflection of their feelings on Panahi himself. The villagers are initially welcoming of Panahi and Jafari as they believe the two have come to fix their electricity and other real-world problems, but once they discover the duo are there to discover the fate of actress Marziyeh, the glad-handing dissipates.
Over the course of his career, Panahi’s greatest preoccupation has been the role of women in Iranian society. In 2000 he wrote and directed The Circle, four interlocking stories about different women and their modern struggles, and my personal favourite Panahi feature, Offside, details the efforts of several women to sneak into the Iranian national football team’s World Cup qualifier, which women are banned from attending. In this film, he gets the opportunity to apply those concerns to the Iranian film industry.
The titular three faces do not include Panahi, but instead concern three actresses at different phases of life – the aspiring Marziyeh, ostracised by her community and unable to escape to an acting conservatory; the successful Behnaz, privileged and sheltered in both her worldview and social standing; and finally an unseen, unnamed actress who lives as a hermit outside the village, embittered by her past experiences within the industry. Panahi juxtaposes the three women’s situation to sketch a complex and harsh picture of the life cycle of actresses, who often have little support or safety net for their ambitions. For those willing to exercise a little patience, 3 Faces is an immensely rewarding exploration of art, social structure, and their confluence.