The Austin Chronicle

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine

Not rated, 93 min. Directed by Bahman Farmanara. Starring Parivash Nazarieh, Mahtaj Nojoomi, Firouz Behjat Mohammadi, Hossein Kasbian, Valiyollah Shirandami, Reza Kianian, Roya Nonahali, Bahman Farmanara.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 8, 2001

Numerous original touches characterize this recent Iranian export -- in addition to its distinction as the only film, to my knowledge, to have ever used the word “camphor” in its title. The movie's writer-director Bahman Farmanara stars in his film as a character who is not exactly autobiographical but is nevertheless a figure who bears a great resemblance to the filmmaker. Smell of Camphor clearly reflects Farmanara's personal experiences, beliefs, and attitudes -- a filmmaking approach which, in itself, indicates a degree of liberalization in Iran's political and artistic atmosphere. Personal stories have not been much in evidence in the recent regeneration of Iranian cinema. Instead, the now-internationally celebrated filmmakers have largely favored social realist dramas, metaphorical landscapes, and oblique protagonists -- often played by children -- in their attempts to win production approvals from the governmental censor board. In Smell of Camphor, Farmanara, who has not made a film since 1978, plays a film director named Bahman Farjami who has not made a film in 24 years. Once the head of the Iranian Film Industry Development Company, which oversaw works by recent film school graduates, Farmanara's 1978 film Tall Shadows of the Wind was banned by the censors of the new Islamic revolution, and he has not received approval to make another film until now. Ironically, the character he plays is a 55-year-old filmmaker who cannot win approval to make a film, so he begins to plan a film that will document his own funeral, under the guise of making a documentary for Japanese television about Iranian funeral rites. A series of odd and unusual things begin occurring, and it becomes clear that the fictive Farjami has begun making this film as a way of staving off his sense of the imminence of death. In some ways, the death-infused themes of Smell of Camphor resemble Abbas Kiarastami's award-winning Taste of Cherry; however, Farmanara's film possesses a black humor and distanced irony that is totally absent from Kiarastami's work. Smell of Camphor might more justly be compared with Fellini's oeuvre, perhaps as Farmanara's 8 1/2, a bordering-on-surreal film about filmmaking, the human condition, and life in contemporary Tehran. The list of Farjami's troubles is long. The chain-smoking director suffers from heart problems but throws away his doctor's prescriptions as he grabs for another cigarette. He visits his beloved wife's grave to find that someone else is buried in the plot next to her, which he purchased for himself at the time of her death. He gives a ride to a woman, who leaves her dead baby behind in the car when she exits. He visits with old film industry friends, who have all found other means of employment. Others are dead; meanwhile, his daughter-in-law is about to give birth. His mother suffers from Alzheimer's, his sister is meddlesome. He housesits for a family that fled Iran many years ago during the revolution, but are now preparing to return. All this and more becomes a swirl in his mind, which culminates in what can only be described as a Felliniesque dream sequence. By the end, even the meaning of the film's title becomes clear. Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine is a movie about life and death; its underpinnings are soaked in the perfume of artistic expression.

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