There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
According to reports from the set of Notting Hill, Julia Roberts was very nervous about playing the scene where she reacts irascibly to the arrival of paparazzi on Hugh Grant’s doorstep. Compare that lapse in likability, however, to the role of the father in Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, who must explain that he kept his twin daughters locked up for 12 years because he was afraid that a boy might touch them and they’d be “dishonored.” Then consider that the role of the father is played by the actual father who did indeed imprison his daughters for 12 years.
The Apple, the kind of Brechtian exercise that’s remarkably common in Iranian cinema, is not a documentary. Still, it does feature the authentic members of a family that became notorious in Tehran two years ago, when news reports revealed that the father had confined his daughters all their lives, preventing them from playing with other children, going to school, or even visiting the public bath. Since their Turkish-born mother is blind and doesn’t speak Farsi, he argued, she could not adequately supervise them. Stunned by the story, the then-17-year-old Makhmalbaf decided to film the girls as quickly as possible. She began shooting The Apple only four days after twins Massoumeh and Zahra were rescued by social workers, and finished the shoot in 11 days. Her haste was essential to capturing the girls’ sudden adaptation to the wider world. Barely able to speak when the film begins, they are dramatically transformed (if not ideally socialized) less than two weeks later. The director was only able to undertake this rapid schedule because her father agreed to give her the film stock and camera authorized for his own planned movie.
Samira Makhmalbaf is the daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who with Abbas Kiarostami is one of the two most prominent Iranian directors to have expressively blended documentary and fiction. (He did so notably in A Moment of Innocence, which screened in last year’s Filmfest D.C., but he’s better known in the U.S. for the folkloric Gabbeh.) The elder Makhmalbaf is credited as The Apple’s editor and screenwriter (although the film was not scripted in the customary sense), yet his most important contribution to the project may have been to home-school his children with a curriculum that emphasized art over Islamic traditionalism. As a fledgling freethinker, Samira Makhmalbaf could hardly help but see Massoumeh and Zahra as an extreme case of the fate Iranian society has in mind for her.
Such ready-made metaphors aside, The Apple is a fascinating look at two wild children, authentic examples of the mysterious almost-human fictionalized in such films as Werner Herzog’s Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Let loose in the city—not by their father, who locks them up again as soon as he retrieves them from the child-welfare office—the remarkably good-natured girls begin a modest crime spree: The former inmates steal ice cream from a young vendor and punch the new friends they meet in the park. Yet there seems to be no malice in them—which is more than can be said for their deeply religious father’s philosophy. “A girl is like a flower,” he reads. “Let the sun touch her and she will fade.”
That wisdom is certainly not supported by the footage of the girls in the street and the park, blossoming in their newfound freedom. Like her father’s, Makhmalbaf’s approach is very dry; the pacing is deliberate, and the film doesn’t cue the emotions with music, preferring to throw the occasional outbursts of emotion into high relief. Yet Massoumeh and Zahra’s high spirits are enough to sustain the narrative. The director simply created scenarios and let the sisters (and their father, who is a compelling character in his own way) exuberantly play them out.
The film’s title is both a tribute to the girls’ favorite treat—before they discover ice cream—and a slightly labored metaphor for innocence and original sin. If another recent Iranian film hadn’t taken the title, though, this one could have been called The Mirror. The family’s social worker locks the father in the house, so he can see himself in his daughters’ plight, and gives mirrors to the girls, so they can finally see themselves. The sequel that Samira Makhmalbaf can never make, of course, is the one where Massoumeh and Zahra grow up to understand how traditional Islamic society sees them.
Irish-Americans used to be among the country’s most oppressed ethnic groups, but these days the sons and daughters of Eire must return to the old country to get a full draught of misery. That’s just what first-time feature writer-director Paul Quinn and his brothers, star Aidan and cinematographer Declan, have done for This Is My Father, an evocation of the bad old days of Irish benightedness that’s really a tribute to the middling old days of Hollywood weepies. The maverick Quinns have toiled mightily to craft the sort of formulaic tear-jerker that the studios used to assemble from spare parts.
The story begins near Chicago, where distracted Kieran Johnson (James Caan) is doing a lousy job of instilling reverence for the past in his mutinous high school history students. At Kieran’s sister’s house, the teacher’s teenage nephew, Jack (Jacob Tierney), is just as defiant, while Kieran’s mother has sunk into senility without ever answering the question that provides the excuse for Kieran (and the Quinns) to voyage to the Emerald Isle. The question, of course, is: Who was my father?
Flashbacks tell the viewer the answer while Kieran and traveling companion Jack are still dealing with a swishy Irish B&B owner (Colm Meaney, in the first of several playful cameos) and his mother (Moira Deady), a former “traveler” who claims to know the whole story. Naturally, she stretches the tale as long as she possibly can, giving the director more opportunities to hop between present and past, usually inspired by the sort of memory-spurring talisman that Citizen Kane turned into a knowing gag a half-century ago.
As is obvious from the opening credits, Dad is Aidan Quinn, who plays Kieran O’Day, a well-meaning but not especially quick-witted “poorhouse bastard” who has been taken in by a childless couple. Kieran lives a quiet, dutiful life in a beautifully photographed late-’30s rural Ireland until headstrong rich girl Fiona Flynn (Moya Farrelly) arrives back in town, expelled from a Galway girls school. Soon the 17-year-old vixen has led poor Kieran to dance, drink, brawl—and so on. As Fiona’s alcoholic mother (Gina Moxley) ponders the danger to her daughter’s reputation, the parish priest calls in the reinforcements: sin-buster Father Quinn, a lecherous anti-lecher played with a shade too much twinkle by Stephen Rea.
For the record, the other cameos are Brendan Gleeson (star of The General) as a local constable and John Cusack as a seaplane-piloting Life magazine photographer whose appearance is so capricious that it’s almost enjoyable. At least it’s a distraction from the predictably dismal course of the central tale or the obvious counterpoint of the contemporary story. (Jack, for instance, strikes up a friendship with an Irish schoolgirl, a cue for those who need to be reminded that adolescent sexual attraction is still in vogue.) Contemporary Kieran eventually gets the personal history he needs, but it’s at such a cost to ’30s Kieran that his (and the film’s) satisfaction seems a little ghoulish. CP