Monday, August 8, 2016


A disorientated young man is trying to recount a strange and violent time he has been through. He is an agent for the Iranian secret service and is being interrogated by a senior officer. We establish that we are still on the island he was sent to and will not leave until he has given a full account of what happened to him. He was sent to investigate the suicide of an exiled political malcontent (this is the Shah's westernised Iran of the 1960s) but quickly establishes that the scene is a covered-up murder.

The local secret service agent begs ignorance and urges him to take the body back to the village for burial before sunset. Why not bury him in the cemetery outside? Oh, sorry, they have gone to a huge valley which features a large cemetery built around an ancient wrecked ship. There is the matter of causing an earthquake by burying anyone there but whatever.... That night, the young officer staying in the ship where the deceased was living, tries to read the handwriting on the walls and soak in the vibe of the scene to start work on solving the murder. There's an earthquake.

Back in Tehran we're also back in the 21st century and listening to a series of talking heads discuss the case, including the director of this film whose real life father was a major figure in the Iranian New Wave back in the time of the opening scenes.

Confused? You won't be. This is on one hand, a highly enjoyable mystery somewhere in X-Files territory that evokes a localised Iranian lore and history and increasingly suggests the presence in the beautifully spooky valley setting of the great adversary Satan in the form of a subterranean dragon. It's the story of the dig to examine the possibility but it's also the story of a government determined to contain its secrets.

So much of Iranian cinema in the last few decades has come to the rest of the world as a series of statements about oppression and has developed its own genre as a tough kitchen sink realist school. While there is a presentation of documentary style here it is part of the greater style of the whole film, offered in contrast to the filmy epic look and sound of the recreated events in the Valley. In the end this, too is about political pressure but the secret is kept abstract. Is it an allusion to nuclear aspirations from the old regime, a primordial secret too awful to expose, or just a MacGuffin so we can talk about suppression? In the end it matters little and not because the film is slight - it is highly and constantly entertaining and atmospheric - but that the force of the narrative and performance stand so confidently by themselves. But then there is the final image which might address a more universal suppression. That won't be silenced, silent as it is.

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