The Austin Chronicle

The Mirror

Not rated, 95 min. Directed by Jafar Panahi. Starring T. Samadpour, N. Omoumi, M. Shirad, R. Mojhedi, Mina Mohammad-Khani.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 16, 1999

A young Iranian girl, who has one arm in a cast and the other toting a bulky book bag, waits outside her school for her mother to come pick her up and take her home. The mother fails to arrive, so the child asks one of the teachers for advice. The distracted teacher tells her to continue waiting, but a friend of the teacher's offers to give her a lift home. She climbs aboard his motorbike, but soon grows impatient and/or confused with his stops and delays and hops off to find her way home on her own. As she navigates the bustling streets of Tehran, clogged with the press of people, traffic, and noise, she grows increasingly uncertain of her direction and the correct route. Her initial confidence grows ever more vague, and despite her pluck and feisty insistence on help from strangers, she can also be maddeningly tight-lipped and uncommunicative. The portrait of modern Tehran that we observe as we follow her on her journey has a remarkably neorealist feel; it's something like the unvarnished images of postwar Rome that can be found in Rossellini's classic Open City. It seems a candid snapshot of a city in action -- as seen through a child's eyes -- filled with strangers both indifferent and helpful, people and traffic whirring to and fro, sounds of a soccer match broadcast in the streets for all to hear, an old woman on a bus complaining about the ingratitude of the younger generation, rules regarding male and female behavior, and so on. But after about 40 minutes, just as boredom with this naturalistic cityscape threatens to set in, the film takes a startling shift. It breaks the fourth-wall conventions, abandoning the fiction of a realistic fiction, and in the process exposes the filmmaking apparatus and the urgent realities that go along with that. Now, the filmmaking takes on an even more scurried feel, as the filmmakers rush to keep the subject in frame and battle with a microphone's intermittent sound recording. This inclination to expose the filmmaking process is frequently found in modern Iranian films, and it is a favorite tactic of the world-renowned Abbas Kiarastami (Taste of Cherry), with whom Panahi studied. This is Panahi's follow-up to his internationally successful film, The White Balloon, which also starred the same young girl. Another thing common in the modern Iranian film renaissance is the structuring of stories to feature children as the lead characters -- a tactic that gets around stickier adult issues involving sex and politics. Thus, the films tend to be allegorical, and in The Mirror it certainly is not difficult to find meaning in the quest of this young girl with a broken wing to find comfort and safety as she wanders through the exciting, scary, helpful, and uncaring landscape of the world beyond her front door. The Mirror doesn't develop its ideas much beyond this point, but it nevertheless provides a fascinating glimpse of modern Iranian culture.

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