SYMBOLS BEHIND SIMPLICITY
"Three faces" seems realistic but this realism is an illusion: the movie is metaphorical. The form itself looks simple but is finely designed. Just a few examples:
- Nightfall is accelerated, there is complete continuity between day and night.
- The path leading to the old actress Shahrzad's home is lit at night, which is incredible outside this small village but allows to see characters going to and from the house.
- There never is off-screen music (realism),except at the very end, which increases the emotional impact by its uniqueness.
Regarding content, "Three faces" is structured as a classical tragedy:
- Unity of time: slightly more than 24 hours: two nights and a day.
- Unity of place: a small village, except at the beginning.
- Unity of action: searching for a girl who committed suicide... or not.
A REMOTE WORLD
The village is a universe in itself: nobody apart from Jafari and Panahi arrive or leave. We hear cars blowing their horn but, remarkably, we never see them (only exception: the final ironic shot of the trucks carrying cows to be inseminated by a legendary bull... who is dead). It seems we cannot leave the place: a dying bull blocks the unique narrow road; the final shot is completely still on the road as if Panahi's car were not moving out. During this final shot, beautiful off-screen music rises for the first time: the specific environment reaches a universal dimension.
Ever-important events happen in the village: birth (the circumcised son, insemination by the bull),death (the potential suicide, the old lady in her grave),a wedding, philosophical talks about life. All generations are present, notably represented by the three generations of actresses: the young Marziyeh, the famous Jafari, the old Shahrzad. There are mysteries: did Marziyeh really kill herself? Where is she? What will happen to her at the end? Why is her brother so violent, is he insane? Who is Shahrzad? The latter remains mysterious: we will only see her from far away. There are many ellipses, the last one being ironical: at one point Marziyeh's brother carries a heavy stone close to Panahi's car... and a few shots later we see the cracked windshield from inside. Last, villagers mostly speak Turkish, not Farsi, which Jafari cannot understand. All these mysteries have a meaning: we can only understand little of this recluse world.
Behind the depiction, the movie delivers a political message: these remote places are abandoned by the state. People complain about utilities failures and lack of doctors and veterinaries. Mentality also is backwards: women cannot do men's work; they cannot study what they want; they mostly stay home; Shahrzad is an outcast; a man has several wives. But the movie does not stigmatise villagers: they are also welcoming. At the beginning, an old man blows Panahi's car horn many times: we think it is a joke... but discover afterwards if was precisely to let the car pass easily. Villagers offer tea, food, telephone call, shelter, etc.
Which bring us back to the above-mentioned continuity: the movie flows with the two main characters going from one place to another, by car or walking. It actually is a road-movie even though most of the action occurs in one place. The flow is also ethical: we cannot decide if the villagers are to be blamed (for their backward ideology) or praised (for their friendliness). We move from one feeling to an opposite one. Notably:
- Three men come to Panahi by night to offer him shelter, clothing and a blanket. This is kind... yet when they go away after he refuses, they say without compassion: "If there is hail, that will teach him (...) These townspeople, they think they know better."
- The old man's superstition about his son's prepuces is at the same time eccentric and respectable (there are worse beliefs).
- We hesitate between blaming Marziyeh for her fake suicide or pitying her for having to go to that extremity: Jafari also experiences both feelings. The movie carries neither prejudice nor definite judgement.
Nonetheless, despite all its qualities, the movie is not a masterpiece. Notably, it is too literal: we stick to the action and the cinematography could be more compelling. Just one example: when the bull is lying on the road at then end, we see him from far away. Closer shots would have rendered the scene more gripping: we could have been closer to the bull not only as a metaphor but also as a being. The movie shows obvious references to Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016 and for whom Panahi originally was an assistant director: quasi-documentary style, road-movie, remote village, life and death, unusual encounters, etc. Yet we can imagine how the master Kiarostami would have taken the same plot to another level.
Probably, the limited resources and clandestine shooting the movie was forced to adopt partly explain the sometimes lack of bigger-than-life dimension. Considering the filming ban Panahi has to compose with, "Three Faces" remains an impressive esthetical tour-de-force. Let us hope he will still be able to shoot and, hopefully some day, to do so without constraint.