de facto film reviews 3 stars

The latest film from dissident Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi titled No Bears is a clever meta-satire that works well as an indictment of Iran’s authoritarian regime as well as an offbeat tribute to the insane nature of the filmmaking process. The film mixes satire, mystery, and an anarchic spirit, where it sometime becomes convoluted in what’s exactly going on in this mockumentary film-within-a-film that finds tragedy near the third act. A low-budget film that is certainly another illegal guerrilla film by Panahi, who is banned from the Iranian government in making films, yet he keeps finding ways to produce and direct films since he was banned back in 2011 upon the release of This Is Not a Film.  His latest film has the playful spirit of his previous three films, but it’s even more of a head scratcher, with the mystery jumping all over the place and making it difficult to predict where it’s going next. Like Panahi’s mentor, the late Abbas Kiarostami, whose films often merged elements of narrative filmmaking with documentary with the ever-evolving spontaneity of nature, people, and energy, Panahi once again just shoots his camera and allows situations to arise or disrupt the narrative that is taking place.

11 years into his sentence, Panahi still continues to find clever ways to direct his films without the authorities ever having to intrude on his guerilla sets. In his last film, Panahi continues his absurdist qualities by returning to Iranian village life, which echoes the setting in Three Faces. The film appears to be very playful, almost Godardian in a sense, until it takes a sharp dark turn in the final act that certainly critiques Iranians’ treatment of dissidents. The setting is a village on the border of Iran and Turkey. It’s certainly in the aftermath of political turmoil, and Panahi shoots it in a certain way where it could also be critiquing Turkey’s regime as well, which recently has also become just as authoritarian as Irian’s. Where Panahi’s films before felt like tributes to the subversive power of cinema, No Bears becomes more serious and politically minded as the film progresses.

No bear” by Jafar Panahi in the cinema - - Time News

The film opens up with a traditional narrative. We are introduced to Zara (Mina Kavani), who works as a waitress in a cafe on a small village street. She ends up leaving work and meeting with her boyfriend Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), who informs her that he was able to get a passport for her so she can finally travel to Europe. Bakhtiar, however, can’t travel with her since he wasn’t able to retain a passport for himself, and he encourages Zara to not let that stand in the way of her trip. The conversation feels very staged, almost Godardian, and it certainly becomes a film within a film.

Panahi isn’t on set, but he directs the actors remotely from a rented-out room just off the Iran-Turkey border. The film he’s shooting takes place in Turkey, and Panahi is directing his latest film away from Iranian soil, and remotely since he is banned from leaving Iran. Panahi is playing himself in the film again, and instead of focusing on camera angles, staging, or directing his actors, his biggest challenge is keeping an internet connection with his crew and Assistant Director (Reza Hayden). Fortunately, the village’s host, Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri), offers Panahi a solution for the connection by placing the modem on a ladder near a rooftop. Jafar begins to embark on the task, but Ghanbari suggests that he stay inside since the neighbors will think he is filming them.

Aucun ours», miroir éclaté d'un monde verrouillé |

While trying to get the Internet connection situated, Panahi stumbles upon a hot mic recording of Ghanbar recording a local wedding, where the villagers are certainly speculating what he’s up to while he’s in the village, but Panahi shakes it off with amusement. As the internet connection takes a lot longer than anticipated, Panahi decides to check out the village. He takes photos of the village, snaps photos of local kids playing on the street, and Ghanbar’s mother (Maries Delram) feeds him some bread and soup that she cooked in her clay oven. Panahi ends up meeting up with his AD, who ends up showing him a region on the border where people smuggle in goods and people near a hilltop that overlooks the village where the film is being shot. Reza even informs him that he’s actually just over the Iranian border, and in Turkey, Panahi is startled and jumps back to the Iranian side.

Meanwhile, Panahi is quickly confronted by a young woman, Gozbal (Darya Alei), who begs Panahi to get rid of a picture he took of her and Soldooz (Amir Davari), which involves them being together under a walnut tree. Other villagers show up, begin to accuse Panahi of trying to disrupt an arranged marriage as other conspiracies arise. The plot and set-up of the film become a meta-fiction dramedy where the villagers’ interrogators draw parallels to the Iranian government’s politically charged accusations and Panahi deconstructs the power of the image in how we measure the truth. Even when there is no image, individuals create their own perceptions that can quickly turn somebody else’s fate upside down. This relates back to the beginning of the exchange between Zara and Bakhtiar. Panahi is certainly playing with the theme of the image that Antonioni explored in Blow-Up, and to a more modern degree than what Jordan Peele just did with his sci-fi nail-biter Nope.

No Bears review: Jafar Panahi's latest shows the political power of filmmaking - New Statesman

This time, Panahi’s film isn’t as visually driven or aesthetically rich as his previous ones. While 3 Faces offered some visually arresting set-pieces and intoxicating landscape cinematography of the village vistas, the filmmaking here is gloomier as the film becomes more serious. Panahi is more interested in his themes, and there is a lot of unnecessary plotting that is hard to follow with the villagers as other accusations begin to arise. Panahi denies he ever took a photo, but even the village sheriff (Naser Hashemi) finds himself in the middle of the scrutiny. Eventually, we learn the young couple in love wants to retreat from the village, so they love each other instead of being coerced into marriage. Zara and Bakhtiar form the beginning of the film, in which we find ourselves back on set and the meta-drama intensifies to some surprising and tragic conclusions that are both political and personal.

While the film veers off in so many unexpected directions, you can’t help but admire the spontaneity. Since Panahi has been directing films illegally since his filmmaking ban, only 3 Faces has felt the most measured and controlled, but No Bears is another filmmaking exercise that you would expect from someone who has to keep what they are doing under wraps. Panahi yet again carries on his courageous spirit, and he’s a filmmaker who is quite eager to express his voice, by doing something substantial with very little, and he gets to experiment, all of which Panahi is able to be free from storytelling conventions while upholding some meta-cleverness.

No Bears opens in limited theaters on Friday, December 23rd, 2022