Bitter dreams is an unforgettable debut by 32 year-old Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Amiryousefi, who first took to mathematics as a career and then to film-making. The film won the grand prize at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, Greece. I caught up with the film and its filmmaker at the Dubai Film Festival. The film has only been screened twice within Iran, according to the director, but has been shown at Cannes, Thessaloniki and Dubai film festivals.
The film is a black comedy filmed in a pseudo-documentary style--probably better known as "mockumentary." The film revolves around a handful of individuals who run the rough equivalent of an undertakers establishment in a small town in Iran. The dead are washed, cleaned and buried covered with a special cloth by certain individuals. For female corpses, there is a lady to do the needful. A grave is dug by the grave digger. All the other clothes, ornaments, dentures, watches, jewelry are supposed to be burnt by another individual. The financial payments of the activities are divided by the chief of the cemetery, Esfandiar, and a portion of the profits go the local cleric.
The director does not document these activities in the traditional way a documentary film would. Instead he chooses to use the documentary film technique in an unusual way to film fiction. He uses real locations, real workers of the graveyard, and a pseudo-TV interview technique of questions and answers. Sometimes you only hear the questions, sometimes only the answers--you are forced to guess what you have not heard. Sometimes both questions and answers are heard.
Half-way into the film, "the recordings" take a life of their own on the TV of Esfandiar, the sullen bodywasher, who looks after the graveyard. The TV acts as a source of information to Esfandiar on what the others working with him think of him. The TV set appears to suggest that Ezrael, the Angel of Death is coming for him. The TV set allows Esfandiar to have a "dialog" with modern day undertakers in Iran's cities. It allows him (and the viewer of the film) to compare the historical variants of dealing with the dead (the ancient Egyptians, the skulls that remind you of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, etc.). The director allows the black and white TV to switch off and on on its own. Is it Esfandiar's inner self? Is it his alter ego? This is a unique technique in cinema--reminding you of Stanley Kubrick's HAL the computer in 2001--A Space Odyssey.
Was Amiryousefi influenced by any director, I asked, after the screening? None, he asserted, to me. He is probably truthful as his film-making is indeed unusual. There are times when you are reminded of the late Cuban filmmaker Tomas Alea's Death of a Bureaucrat. The mathematician in Amiryousefi surfaces--he lets Esfandiar describe the numeral "5" as the pregnant woman and "9" as the old man, obviously referring to the visual imagery of the number.
There are several indirect references to Shakespeare's gravedigger in Hamlet--talk of a girl committing suicide after falling in love with someone, a quibble on "to be or not to be", and the production of a skull from the grave being dug.
The "bitter dream" of preparing for the time when death's angel knocks on your door has been worked on by many directors worldwide. Ingmar Bergman distinguished himself on the subject with The Seventh Seal. But unlike the serious Bergman, Amiryousefi looks at the universal eventuality with humor--black humor. You can enter heaven, if all those you harmed in life forgave you. If you are clever in life, you can buy forgiveness from those you had hurt in the past. Typical of current Iranian cinema, there is no sex, no profanity, only black humor with a hint of satire. Is life all about death? Does Ezrael sound like Israel, or is it our socio-political awareness reading too much into the film? Why does Esfandiar interfere in courtship of two grown up individuals--he chooses to interfere from afar with binoculars--not from the mountain top. He knows well he is loser in love (he is single, unmarried and childless) and in life, but wants to win in death and reach heaven.
This is unusual, brilliant, and path-breaking low budget ("no-budget" according to the director) cinema that hopefully will be seen by many in Iran and elsewhere. Iranian cinema is indeed on the march this decade.
P.S. This film is on the author's top 100 films list and the author's top 15 films of the 21st century.