It can take time for certain filmmakers to make their first feature, and at 37 years old, Iranian writer-director Panah Panahi is not necessarily an early bloomer.
Then again, when you’re the child of Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, Crimson Gold, Taxi), one of the world’s most respected auteurs, winner of top awards at the Berlin, Venice and Locarno festivals, and championed by the industry for a stance against the Iranian government that led to a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban from filmmaking in his homeland, it makes sense to stop and consider things before trying to direct a movie yourself.
Hit the Road
A stirring new voice.
After attending film school in Tehran, shooting an award-winning short and assisting his father on a few of his movies (including as co-editor on 2018’s 3 Faces), Panahi finally makes his feature debut with Hit the Road (Jadde Khaki), a film in which he accomplishes two things: He proves that he’s his father’s son, channeling the slow-burn, self-reflective realism present in much of the best work of the Iranian New Wave; and perhaps more importantly, he moves beyond his father’s oeuvre to discover a distinct new voice, in a movie that’s very much about a son cutting ties with his family so he can find his own way.
Premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, this impressively made and touching debut could probably have screened in the main competition — it demonstrates a skill and control of the medium that’s rare for a first film. At the very least, the Croisette bow will allow Hit the Road to garner interest abroad, and hopefully allow Panahi fils to make another movie.
From the very first scene — a long sequence-shot inside a car stopped beside the highway in the Iranian countryside — it’s clear something special is happening. We hear classical piano music on the soundtrack, and then we see a little boy (6-year-old Rayan Sarlak) mimicking those notes on a hand-drawn keyboard that dons the massive leg cast of his father (Hassan Madjooni). The camera keeps exploring, panning to focus on the boy’s mother (Pantea Panahiha), and afterwards on a man (Amin Simiar) we learn is his older brother.
Panahi expertly stages the action, breaking the fourth wall (or not) and suddenly shifting to comedy, with the boy snidely reacting, then having a small fit, after his parents take his phone away. The tone shifts back to drama when the older brother returns to the car looking lost and distressed, revealing how easily the director can alter moods and points-of-view, capturing a family dynamic that becomes increasingly complex as the story unfolds.
Nothing is left to chance: Even the act of seizing a bratty kid’s phone will take on greater meaning later on, when we learn that the road trip is far more than a simple vacation, requiring the family to covertly arrive near a border in the north. Like the Iranian masters that preceded him, Panahi has a talent for leaving many things unsaid, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about scenes that look natural but are filled with intent.
He also introduces his own kind of pop sensibility, with the characters singing and dancing along to Iranian music, bringing a fresh dose of energy into a cinema famous for its restraint. There are moments when things get so silly, it’s as if we’re watching a Persian Little Miss Sunshine, until the film suddenly veers in another, more somber and profound, direction.
As they head into the mountains, the relationship between the father, a moody man who views the world with a mix of sagacity and cynicism, and the son, who’s desperately trying to take his future into his own hands, grows more tense, leading to a hushed confrontation that’s shot by cinematographer Amin Jafari in one long, beautiful take on a riverbank.
Meanwhile the mother, movingly portrayed by the expressive Panahiha, reveals herself to be the person most deeply affected by the voyage. Oftentimes, the movie switches from laughs to tears in a single shot, such as a late sequence where the mom goes off to cry, only to encounter the family dog ridiculously dragging a plastic chair behind him.
Panahi fills Hit the Road with such playful diversions, many of them involving little Sarlak, a child so hyperactive he would probably be administered Ritalin in the U.S. His character serves as a comic foil during the film’s heavier scenes, including one — captured in a long wide shot reminiscent of the work of Abbas Kiarostami — in which he’s left tied to a tree as the family suddenly faces the inevitable event they’ve been waiting for, until it’s too late.
Such restraint shows how mature Panahi already is for a first-time director, although he’s not afraid to let loose as well, whether it’s in a scene of Sarlak lipsynching a song with unusual skill (someone really needs to get this kid an agent), or another toward the end where the director employs CGI, abandoning realism altogether for a moment of pure fantasy.
It’s at such times that you can feel Panahi drifting away from his director forefathers, including his own father, testing out new ideas and methods to see if they suit him, trying to find a different way to express himself. Like the older son in Hit the Road, he’s bravely venturing off into unknown territory for his first movie — although he also keeps one foot firmly planted in the past, creating the kind of quiet miracles Iranian cinema is known for.