3 Faces: Auto-Didactic, by David Bax
This review originally ran as a part of our TIFF 2018 coverage.
In recent decades, Iranian cinema has established a strong tradition of movies that take place largely in cars. Abbas Kiarostami made two classics, The Taste of Cherry and Ten. Now Jafar Panahi has a commendable double feature of his own with 2015’s Taxi and the new, even better 3 Faces. What seems at first like a funny coincidence becomes poignant upon consideration that, in a restrictive nation like Iran, the car offers the rare duality of an autonomous space and a public one at the same time. It’s an especially useful tool in 3 Faces, which is chiefly concerned with the many divisions and contradictions of modern Iranian life.
As he has done in each of the three previous movies he’s made since being officially banned from making movies, Panahi plays himself. This time, we pick up sort of in media res, as he and actress Behnaz Jafari, also playing herself, drive out of Tehran and into the countryside. They’re behaving somewhat erratically and soon we find out why. A young, aspiring actress named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) has sent Jafari a video message in which she lays out her situation. She wants to be an actress too and and even been accepted into the conservatory. But her family is forcing her to stay in her village and marrying her off. If she can’t find a way out, she’s going to kill herself. And so Panahi and Jafari are on their way to talk to her before it’s too late.
Panahi has no interest in making himself out to be a hero, though. On the contrary, being aware that his story is about women, he paints himself with irritable but too true male stereotypes. He’s stubborn, paternalistic and, in many cases, wrong.
That’s not to say that the women of 3 Faces are flawless. But their complexity and differences are the point. Iran is a hard place to be a woman. It’s also a hard place to be an artist or, as the people of Marziyeh’s village dismissively describe them, “entertainers.” This epithet, both spiteful and hypocritical (the villagers all seem to be fans of Jafari’s work, if not Panahi’s) is applied not only to the two female characters but also to the shunned, retired actress who lives outside of the village, the unseen third face of the title.
3 Faces flirts with the fish out of water comedy of these two big city folks in the country (they literally speak different languages) but its observations are too incisive and sobering to produce many laughs. It’s easy for us in the Western, developed world to imagine Iran as living in the past but that’s impossible. It’s a nation that exists in 2018 as much as it does in its own repressive, theocratic dark age. 3 Faces makes it clear that we’re not as far from this world as we’d like to think, which is as reassuring as it is terrifying.