Saturday, November 02, 2019

244. Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi’s film “Ghasr-e Shirin” (Castle of Dreams) (2019) in Persian (Farsi) language: An amazing screenplay with a sophisticated ending embellishes a film with remarkable direction and performances

It is rare when a feature film competes in an international film festival and wins not just the top honour for the best film but two other major awards (one for best director and one for the best actor) as well. That’s the accomplishment of Reza Mirkarimi’s Iranian film Castle of Dreams at the 2019 Shanghai International Film Festival.

While Mirkarimi’s previous feature film Daughter (2016) dealt with a father-daughter protective relationship, Castle of Dreams also looks at another relationship within a family. The family relationship explored in Castle of Dreams is a more complex one, as it involves a broken family where the mostly absent father is forced by circumstances to realize that he has to take care of his two biological children whom he has neglected for long, when his wife passes away in a hospital after a sudden critical illness.

Jalal (Hamed Behdad) with his sister-in-law

A simple subject, one could surmise.  But the amazing screenplay plays out from start to finish as a thriller forcing the viewer to stay riveted to the plot to see how the unusual social predicament would resolve itself.  There is no hero in this film, only an anti-hero Jalal (Hamed Behdad), who has separated from his wife, Shirin,  (never seen on screen) and has had minimal interaction with his two kids for a minimum of 3 years.

The early introduction of Jalal in Castle of Dreams presents many of his negative aspects of his character upfront making the viewer to abhor this lout. The events that follow let the viewer to perceive a gradual change in this individual as he is forced, much against his original plan, to take on himself the responsibilities of a father.  As the film progresses, the audience witnesses a gradual change in Jalal’s behaviour and attitudes, prompted by a series of events  involving peripheral characters and a series of short conversations with his own kids.  The viewer is able to glimpse what the late Shirin, evidently a smart lady, saw in this man Jalal to marry him after he had repaired her broken down car and continued to acknowledge his positive traits, long after  he had separated from her and continued to neglect their children. Shirin consciously painted fictional tales for her offspring to admire their absent father instead of exhibiting bitterness. Shirin tells her son that his father lives in a castle (hence. the title of the film) and that the bicycle that she has bought for him with her own savings had been gifted by his absent father Jalal.

Jalal with his cute little daughter

Jalal with his son and daughter on the road trip

The fascinating original script written by two little known scriptwriters (Mohammad Davoud and Mohsen Gharaie)  keeps the audience guessing how the tale would end, somewhat like a thriller, while characters seen (Jalal) and unseen (Shirin) are slowly revealed in depth as the film progresses.  It is not surprising the film won the best screenplay (Crystal Simorgh) award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. These character developments are facilitated by actions and spoken words of the two kids of the two principal characters.  The first child is a cute, innocent girl called Sara and the second is her elder brother, who is savvy enough to operate an electronic notebook, ride a cycle, and use a debit/credit card with ease.  The interactions of these young kids with their father, who they have not seen for years, are crucial vignettes in the film.

Facts tumble out as the film progresses. Jalal had come to Shirin’s house merely to pick up his car—not to interact with his kids or even visit his wife Shirin lying in a critical condition in a hospital. Shirin, we learn as the film progresses, is a smart woman who teamed up with an elderly rich man to grow flowers in a greenhouse and the resulting business model is thriving. The proceeds of her business are sufficient to support her financially as a single mother of two kids. We also learn from conversations that she is very much still in love with her estranged husband Jalal.  She possibly knew she was terminally ill and therefore left a loaded debit/credit card with her son, planning in advance for the eventual bleak scenario.

Jalal re-evaluates his relationship with his Azei lady fiend

Jalal, we learn is an Azeri (from the original Azerbaijan) not Persian and is planning to live with an Azeri lady. (Azeris are a significant minority in Iran who speak the Azeri language and even Ayatollah Khomeini who led the Iranian revolution was an Azeri Iranian).  When Jalal does not want his kids to hear conversations with his lady friend they speak in Azeri language as the kids can only comprehend Farsi.

Both the kids have been encouraged to love animals by their mother Shirin.  The small girl has a turtle as a pet and the elder boy is an animal lover.  These factors play a strategic part in the interesting script at crucial points to transform their father during a short road trip after their mother’s demise (evidently not revealed to the kids).

Director Mirkarimi (with cap) directs his lead
actor Hamed Behdad during the filming

The film is in some ways reminiscent of the Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s 2007 film The Banishment, where too the father of the nuclear family transforms after the death of his innocent wife and has to take care of his two kids, a boy and a girl. That film, of course, was an acknowledged adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel The Laughing Matter.   Both films Castle of Dreams and The Banishment have one common facet: the viewer is forced to re-evaluate the major male character as he transforms in attitudes and character.

Castle of Dreams presents one of the most sophisticated screenplays with an ending comparable to that of Arthur Penn’s existential thriller Night Moves (1975). Castle of Dreams is definitely one of the remarkable films of 2019 and possibly the best work of the Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi.

(The film is showcased at the on-going Denver Film Festival, USA.)

P.S.  Reza Mirkarimi’s film Daughter (2016), a film focussing on a father-daughter protective relationship within a patriarchal conservative Asian framework has been reviewed earlier on this blog. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s 2007 film The Banishment has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the film’s titles within this postscript to access the review.) The author’s best Iranian films is listed here with rankings. Castle of Dreams is the best film among the top 20 films of 2019 for the author.