When Academy Award time rolls around, Reza Mirkarimi has thrice been Iran’s go-to director for his emotionally involving tales of family life. Subtly written and sensitively directed, his new film Castle of Dreams (a.k.a. Shirin’s Castle, Ghasr-e Shirin) is another psychological drama that nimbly teases out the meaning of fatherhood and the responsibility it entails. It risks looking a trifle placid next to the acidic social dramas and heart-pounding police thrillers that are breaking new ground in Iran, but its appeal to audiences remains. It won two Crystal Simorghs for best screenplay and music at the national Fajr Film Festival in February and is set to bow in competition at the Shanghai International Film Festival. (Mirkarimi is the director of the Fajr International Film Festival in April, a separate venue, where the film did not play).
Very much in the spirit of Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief, Castle of Dreams raises ambivalent emotions around the encounter between a man recently out of prison and on the skids and his small son, who displays a touching loyalty to a man who has fallen morally very low. Though the story is designed to tug at the heartstrings, Mirkarimi (who also produced and edited) is careful to keep the simmering emotional content under control, leading to an effective ending that could almost be called low-key.
Paternity takes time.
When Jalal (Hamed Behdad) first appears in the village of his ex-wife, from whom he has been separated for years, he is a morose, unshaven bully only interested in his own affairs. She is in ICU on life support and the prognosis is not good, but he hasn’t even been to see her. In a painstakingly developed opening scene, Jalal tussles with his sister-in-law, Nasrin, who has been taking care of the couple’s small children, Sara and Ali. His only goal is to drive off with his wife’s car, which he plans to sell, and to leave the kids behind. But Nasrin’s husband is determined to make him take the kids with him. The scene feels realistic but runs on and on, until the children finally end up in his car.
Little Sara (Nioosha Alipour) is in kindergarten and is literally too adorable for her role. Like a latter-day Shirley Temple, she is distractingly cute as she humorously spreads joy through her misunderstanding of the bleak family situation. Her slightly older brother, Ali (Youna Tadayyon), is much more on-target as a sober youngster who gets a lot more of what is going on in the adult world, though he’s still child enough to try to block it out.
No sooner are the three of them on the road, winding through some luscious parts of mountainous Iran, than Jalal picks up his girlfriend (Zhila Shahi), who he immediately starts berating for wearing too much makeup. Though she is initially set up as a floozy, she gradually elicits sympathy for the gruff, abusive treatment she receives from Jalal and her perception of him (which corresponds to the viewer’s) as a liar and a cad. The fact that they often speak together in the Azeri language is a reference that will be lost on international audiences, perhaps signaling their foreignness as a disadvantage, or a certain attitude to family relations.
Behdad, who made his mark in Kamal Tabrizi’s political satire Sly as a thinly disguised version of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, here nicely underplays Jalal’s emotional closure, until little by little he begins to open up to the children. His feelings seem to come out through violent moments of conflict. Screenwriters Mohammad Davoudi and Mohsen Gharaie choose just the right line of dialogue or a sudden confrontation scene to illuminate him, always witnessed by a critical, shocked observer.
Cast: Hamed Behdad, Zhila Shahi, Akbar Aein, Niousha Alipour, Mohammad Asgari, Youna Tadayyon
Director-producer-editor: Reza Mirkarimi
Screenwriters: Mohammad Davoudi, Mohsen Gharaie
Executive producer: Mohammed Sadegh Mirkarimi
Director of photography: Morteza Hodaei
Production and costume designer: Atoosa Ghalamfarsaie
Music: Amin Honarmand
Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival