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The 24th annual Iranian Film Festival arrives at a strange moment, but in another sense, it could not arrive at a better time. Earlier this month, it seemed like Iran and the United States were on the brink of war. Tensions between the two countries have recently eased, and yet all this saber-rattling creates a lasting inhumanity. This year’s festival shows Iranians who are conniving, frightened, courageous, funny, and cruel. We have more in common with Iranians—and their cinema—than the war hawks would care to acknowledge.

Old Men Never DieOld Men Never Die, a dark comedic fantasy, is about a group of men who are stuck in the bargaining stage of grief. The film is set almost entirely in an unnamed village, one where no men have died in 45 years. This could be mere coincidence, except everyone seems to believe the Angel of Death forgot the village exists.

Sometimes the old men in the film feel defiant: They have cheated death, so they can behave recklessly and do whatever they want. Sometimes they are utterly depressed: Without any real resolution, some of the men feel their life has no meaning. Able-bodied men and women plead with the old-timers, and there is a scene where one nearly jumps off a mountain just to see whether he would survive.

Old Men Never Die is also a gorgeous film, with dramatic images of mountains and sunsets. Many modern Iranian films focus on urban decay, so a depiction of provincial life is a welcome reprieve. Still, writer-director Reza Jamali does not shy away from disturbing content, including a protracted scene where two men, out of sheer morbid curiosity, attempt to drown each other. It is an allegorical film, one that shows advanced age with a sympathetic mix of fear, rage, and sadness. Just don’t expect much acceptance.

Old Men Never Die screens Jan. 28 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center at 7 p.m.

FilmfarsiIt’s easy to forget Iranian cinema existed before Asghar Farhadi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jafar Panahi. The documentary Filmfarsi is a crash course in Iranian movies made between the 1953 coup and the 1979 revolution. Narrating in English, director Ehsan Khoshbakht borrows the term “filmfarsi” from critic Hushang Kavusi. It refers to films that are too disjointed and amateurish to be taken seriously.

Filmfarsi is an interesting documentary because it essentially functions as a lengthy type of film criticism. Khoshbakht includes footage from countless films, most of it preserved illegally on VHS, and provides commentary on them. Sometimes the footage is hilarious, either because of poor production values or heavy-handed dialogue. At the same time, Khoshbakht argues these films are worth careful study because they serve as propaganda over this period in Iran’s history. 

The appeal to this documentary is admittedly limited. It outlines a minor movement, and assumes deep familiarity with pre and post-revolution life. For those who are curious about Iran or even film history, however, the documentary is an invaluable achievement and a remarkable archive of a forgotten period. 

Filmfarsiscreens Jan. 30 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center at 7 p.m.

The WardenThis year’s festival is a stunning showcase for Navid Mohammadzadeh, an actor with an impressive range in roles that could not be more different. He plays a drug dealer in Just 6.5, and he stars as a severe bureaucratic functionary in The Warden. This film is the most conventionally entertaining one at the festival, a ticking clock thriller with deep empathy at its core.

Set in the 1960s, writer and director Nima Javidi follows Major Jahed (Mohammadzadeh), a warden whose prison is about to be demolished. The demolition paves the way for a promotion, so things are looking up for the warden, at least until he realizes that one of his prisoners is missing. He has no choice but to recruit his underlings for an exhaustive search, and with the demolition crew on its way, the warden’s future hangs in the balance.

Most of the tension in The Warden is psychological, with Jahed hiding his true feelings about his promotion and the lost prisoner. Another key character isMiss Karimi (Parinaz Izadyar), a social worker who believes that the lost prisoner does not deserve prison time at all. She wants to help the warden, except there is a crucial point where their interests differ, so the film follows these unlikely allies as they decide just how much to trust each other.

Like countless American thrillers, The Warden ends with a car chase. While it is competently staged, the stakes of the chase are what elevate it. The warden is more than a mere functionary, and Miss Karimi is also sympathetic to his point of view. How they resolve their impasse is life-affirming, particularly for a film that opens on a foreboding image of a noose waiting for another victim.

The Warden screens Jan. 21 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center at 7 p.m.

When the Moon Was FullThe first scene of Narges Abyar’s When the Moon Was Full unfolds somewhat innocuously. A shopkeeper watches a stranger harass a woman, and he immediately runs into the street to beat him up. If the goal is to protect the woman, there is also a need to possess her. That dynamic runs through Abyar’s film, which starts as a domestic drama and ends as a tragic, terrifying thriller with competent action scenes.

Elnaz Shakerdoost plays Faezah, the woman the shopkeeper Hamid (Hootan Shakiba) protects. The first act follows their courtship, including how both families settle on the conditions of their union, and Hamid’s mother (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee), who is unhappy and severe. Over the course of the film, we realize she is not a stick in the mud, but deeply sympathetic to Faezah. Little does the new bride know that Hamid’s brothers have al-Qaeda connections, and Hamid is about to join the ranks.

When the Moon Was Full is based on a true story, and there is plausible realism to how Faezah overlooks Hamid’s zealotry until it is too late. By the time they move to Pakistan and she is a prisoner in her own home, al-Qaeda’s misogyny is on full display. This does not sit well with Hamid, who is torn between loyalties, unfolding into the tragedy of the final scenes.

When the Moon Was Full screens Jan. 23 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center at 7 p.m.

GholamWatching a complex man keep to himself can be absorbing. Friends and strangers try and cajole something out of him, but he remains taciturn—often as a way to hide his secrets. Gholam, a drama from director Mitra Tabrizian, deepens that absorption by setting her film during the 2011 Iran protests.

The film unfolds in London, a place where unlikely friendships and bitter tribalism are real possibilities. Shahab Hosseini plays Gholam, a taxi driver and mechanic who still has ties to his homeland. A mild mannered man of routine, he keeps to himself pathologically, to the point where his colleagues worry about him. His only new acquaintance is the nice old woman he helps cross the street.

In a café one afternoon, someone recognizes him: Gholam was a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and he was “fearless.” This man attempts to recruit him for some unspecified mission—one that would require him to return home—but Gholam is having none of it. Tabrizian provides few details about her hero’s early life, and instead unfolds as a low-key psychological drama.

Despite its modest stakes, this film develops real suspense. The mysterious recruiters might be spies, and there is a subplot where Gholam wages a quiet war against thugs who are likely white supremacists. Gholam, who was unmoored and deeply unhappy, ultimately finds a sense of purpose that will satisfy him, and the film shows how that point of view can be courageous.

Gholam screens Jan. 31 at the Freer Gallery of Art at 7 p.m., and Feb. 4 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center at 7 p.m.

Just 6.5Death sentences are common in Iran’s justice system. Criminals are more willing to take their lives in their hands, and cops use the gallows as a bargaining tool. That tension is central to Just 6.5, a tough crime procedural that becomes a thorny portrayal of corruption and mercy.

Fans of writer-director Asghar Farhadimay recognize Payman Maādi, who had pivotal roles in A Separation and About Elly. Here he plays Samad, a cop on the heels of a powerful drug dealer in Tehran. Through a mix of guesswork and luck, he finally apprehends Naser (Navid Mohammadzadeh) in his posh penthouse apartment. Naser is nearly dead when the cops find him—he survives a suicide attempt—and the film follows Naser as he does everything in his power to get out of jail.

Saeed Roustayi, who wrote and directed Just 6.5, prefers characters who are not wholly sympathetic or evil. The law is on Samad’s side, but his zeal is borderline inhumane and he signals he might accept a bribe or two. Naser’s success in the drug trade has undoubtedly made Tehran less safe, yet he is forthright about the service he provides, and perceives biases against him accurately. The dialogue between them is combative, and it is to the actors’ credit that we are unsure who to believe, or why.

Just 6.5 is a somewhat unassuming title for a film, although its significance is quietly brutal. The number refers to how many millions in Iran are addicted to drugs, a number that is only increasing. Naser and Samad both understand that they are cogs, and their efforts will do little to heighten or curb demand for drugs in a city where poverty runs rampant. 

Just 6.5 screens Feb. 2 at the Freer Gallery of Art at 2 p.m., and Feb. 6 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center at 7 p.m.

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