It is the early 2000s, and I am a young cinephile devouring any movie I can find, from 1970s and ‘80s horror films to classics, modern classics, and any European movies. It is hard to slake my thirst since, in the times of no broadband Internet – and in Iran where almost no foreign movie hits the screens, and the selling of movies is illegal – my only source is bootlegs. Finding Iranian movies made before the 1978 Islamic Revolution is also an odyssey; we know many movies, as if we had seen them, only through reading articles about them.

One of these Iranian films is The Chess Game of the Wind (1976) by Mohammad Reza Aslani, a Holy Grail of Iranian cinema. So when you came across a bad copy of the film by mere chance for $0.5USD, you watch it – without considering the blurry, horrible VHS quality of the version available, forgetting that the film is really in colour, and that what you are seeing is a black-and-white film with French subtitles. After the first viewing, you envy anyone who saw it in cinema years ago, even though it was, even then, not screened properly. You boast of having seen the film to your friends – but it takes almost 15 years to find a good quality version of the film, in another semi-bootleg on DVD, and paying less than $2USD for it.

This time, you really see the film and appreciate all it has achieved. From marvelous camera movements, to every tiny prop purposefully set in the corners of the frame. You understand how important mise en scène is for this director who loves Max Ophüls. The story is very simple: the decadence of a family in the Qajar dynasty of Iran. Aslani is one of the most neglected Iranian filmmakers – not only outside Iran, but also in his homeland. A prolific documentarist who has made only two fiction films (the second, Green Fire [2008], was bashed by critics, which is hardly surprising), Aslani is a filmmaker who tells the most Iranian stories with the elegant technique of Ophüls or Visconti. His movies are eloquent, hard to digest.

However, it takes only 15 minutes to succumb to The Chess Game of the Wind. With the first dinner gathering of the family of the deceased mother (crippled daughter, her step father, her uncle, her maid), through mise en scène, the power dynamic of the story unfolds. You grasp that this story of fighting over a great deal of money is only a pretext for deeper social and cultural comment. The film foretells the Iranian Revolution and remains riveting – not only because of its story and hidden layers, but also because it is one of the rarest Iranian films that, while in debt to German Expressionism and Visconti’s operatic, narrative tools, is rooted in Iranian painting and frame composition. That’s why the film is truly the Holy Grail of Iranian cinephiles – and a mesmerising one.

(article was originally published at Lola Journal)

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