An unsuspecting soldier watches over his barren and remote post. What he's on the lookout for is anyone's guess. There's nothing to interrupt the skyline for as far as the eye can see. The nameless soldier evokes a sense of the same fatal futility that might befit a character in a Beckett play, but he's not. He's in a movie, an Iranian one, although it seems like the author of this movie's long takes might be a meditative filmmaker like Claire Denis or Jim Jarmusch. Wrong again. Babek Payami is the writer and director of Secret Ballot,
his second film, and this newcomer has delivered a sharply observed and resoundingly funny movie that tackles such heady topics as feminism, democracy, the voting process, communication, external and internal impediments to personal growth, and more. Not in any direct or pedagogical way, mind you, but in artful and oblique set-pieces and narrative exchanges. A locked ballot box is dropped down into the soldier's camp by helicopter, followed by the arrival of a lone woman by boat. It's election day and she's the government official sent to gather the votes. She takes her job very seriously and, to the bafflement of the soldier, has him drive her and the ballot box hither and yon to gather the people's votes. Finding the people in this rugged landscape without roads or communities proves a challenge, and even once potential voters are found, they often need to have what is being asked of them explained or clarified. Clearly, this is a story about Iran, although great pains have been taken to ground this story in the universal. The characters have no given names, the desolate setting makes the movie look as though it were shot on the moon, and the details of the vote remain a mystery. As their jeep crosses the desert, collecting votes as arduous to find as needles in haystacks, the soldier and the woman joust with each other and shed some of their protective barriers. Secret Ballot
can be seen as rich with symbols and parabolic implications, or as simple and straightforward as a grade-school pageant. The film's comedy is sly and subtle, but nevertheless evident in abundance -- a rarity among the recent wave of Iranian imports. The film is based on an idea by top Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf, and has been a popular mainstay of the past year's festival circuit. Payami also received a Special Jury Award for Best Director at last year's Venice International Film Festival. Secret Ballot
is a real winner -- smart, funny, subtle, and resonant -- and there's not a hanging chad in sight.