It’s now been nine years since Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was banned from making films in his own country, yet he has continued to rebel as all artists do, and the result of his stubbornness has resulted in more experimental, visually stripped down films mostly shot with cell phone cameras within his means so he doesn’t bring too much attention to himself. Panahi’s 2012 documentary “This Is Not a Film” featured him showcasing to the audience in just how his freedom of speech and expression is now being stripped away, while his 2013 pseudo-documentary “Close Curtain”, featured real actors but was only shot mostly in one location at Panhai’s beach side home on the Caspian Sea. In 2015 his film “Taxi,” Panahi was able to pose as a taxi driver in Tehran where he offered free cab rides, in return he would generate deep conversations with passengers about the current state of Iran and other hot-button issues that polarize his nation like capital punishment. Due to his limitations, Panahi was very limited in what he has recently done, and his most recent films have come off more academic and experimental by design.
Now with “3 Faces”, he is able to go back to a more traditional narrative route that is found in his earlier work, like the superb 2000 film “The Circle,” as well as the 2006 female empowerment “Offside” that examined the need for cultural evolution as young girls have to sneak into soccer games because women are forbidden to watch stadium soccer games. While Panahi still has to work around his needs, he still having a more stripped down film techniques and limited filmmaking tools. By using an observational camera that just observes what goes on that includes Panahi’s trademark visual style of long takes, yet as always Panahi’s vision and execution still feels fresh and artfully done. This goes to prove that it doesn’t matter what tools a filmmaker has, its vision and the measure of how personal the filmmaker’s vision is can truly take a film a long way.
The film opens with chilling smartphone video footage of a young woman walking inside of a remote and desolate cave. She tells the camera about the dreams she had of becoming a film actress, all of the suffering she has endured, and the failed attempts she had in contacting Iranian movie star Behnaz Jafari in getting her foot in the industry. She ends up hanging herself inside of the cave, in the following scene we see Jafari (playing herself) as she rides in a car as Panahi’s voice emerges riding along with her, and soon after Jafari feels completely guilty for the young woman’s suicide. Panahi and Jafari head to the cave themselves to discover if the death is real or if it was staged.
The premise of the film along with Panahi’s style are a rich combination of Jean-Luc Godard and the late Abbas Kiarastami, who was a clear mentor and protege for Jafar Panahi. The premise of the film echoes Kiarastami’s 1991 superb “Life, and Nothing More,” which was shot just after Kiarastimi’s 1990 celebrated masterpiece “Close-Up,” and as the film is every bit as contemplative and poetic as the work of Kiarastami and Godard. As the film goes on it becomes very clear that “3 Faces” becomes an ode and eulogy to the brilliant mind of Abbas Kiarastami.
Panahi shoots the film with striking compositions, ravishing landscapes, and he blends the fiction mixed with the documentary style that was always found in Kiarostami’s impressive body of work. Yet the film is still more than just being a derivative homage, Panahi brings his own voice into this, just as when you think the film will become a road movie, it ventures into making a political statement on the power of defiance, how art needs to more embraced and championed in communities, societies, and cultures.
The film is very layered with rich ideas and themes as it plays around with genre trappings. Once you think it becomes a mystery film about characters trying to solve a mystery, it ventures into something more provocative. The film has astonishing braveness and boldness that runs throughout it’s course. The film is a immersive and sophisticated film that holds superb formalism throughout. You feel the claustrophobia of the car ride in the S.U.V., you hear and feel the resentment Panahi holds to his fellow mankind in Iran how art, film, and change is disregarded for the mundane and old ways.
After the voyage of dustry roads in the desert, arguments, debating, and bickering, Behnaz and Jafar stop at a village that pushes the story forward. It’s there where they meet bizarre and eccentric village people. There is an old man that creates a gift made of foreskin, and an old woman is waiting for her own death and she sleeps in a prepared grave. As Behnaz and Jafar come close to solving the mystery created by the young woman, who’s family is deeply unsettled and disenchanted by her yearnings of becoming an actress. The third face in the film we actually never see is another actress appear named Shadrazd, who’s an iconic Iranian actress who becomes the third face of artistic expression who is now treated like an outcast. The three actress all generational gaps of the rising star, the current star, and the forgotten to examine how the cycles of art indeed reflect reality.
Ultimately “3 Faces” becomes a layered film about decay, the death of art, the death of society, and of culture. How death will always be an ongoing thing in the cycle of life, and even in the artistic and filmic sense. Outside of the suicide, we see the elderly woman lying in her ready-made grave, and a bull dying in the middle of a road in the outskirts of the Iranian-Turkey border, along with how Shadrazd is now treated, goes to show how art and decency should pull humanity closer together, yet art and humanity is always in a constant state of crises, high standards, and being left forgotten about as time passes on.
All around “3 Faces” feels like the work of an exile, it feels timely and equally personal. Despite some of dense ideas and themes that will go over most viewers minds who aren’t familiar with the work of Panhai or Kiarostami, there is still something satisfying and involving going on with its drama. Jafar and Behnaz hold great character arcs, and the film comes off almost like a meta self-discovery for Panahi’s own sense of solidarity, and the film shows the healing power of art.