It was exactly this authentic—and at times brutal—portrayal of the human condition in a non-Hollywood style that popularized films such as “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” by Abbas Kiarostami in the late 1980s.
Iranian actors’ and directors’ artistic bent has won them a couple of Golden and Silver Bears from Berlin and Palme d’Ors from Cannes, as well as a Golden Globe and two Oscars for best foreign language film, among other awards and recognitions.
At the same time, Iran’s film industry can also be a money-spinner, at least locally if not internationally. Over the years, Iranian bestsellers have managed to draw 1-1.5 million of viewers to the big screen, which is no small feat.
The alarming news, however, is that the people’s taste may be changing. Films that Massoud Farassati, one of the most controversial and prominent film critics in the country, describes as “vulgar and offensive to the senses,” have gained more and more ground in recent years.
These films that Farassati—a devotee of the Golden Age of cinema and a supreme admirer of Hitchcock—is talking about are often “farcical” stories of improbable love affairs—which are increasingly set in locations outside of Iran.
Salaam Mumbai (2016), for instance, was shot in India, while Los Angeles-Tehran (2018) is set in California, where the largest Iranian diaspora in the world is based.
While until a decade ago sober films with spiritual overtones such as Hamoun (1989) or the Glass Agency (1998) were popular with viewers, now escapist musicals and romantic comedies are increasingly topping the box office in Iran, giving the arty producers a run for their money.
The silver lining may be that commercially successful productions are at least keeping the industry alive, so that elitist films can still be produced from time to time.
In the grander scheme of things, the two faces of Iranian cinema may be a representation of the two extremes of the Iranian mindset which have evolved over the centuries: the solemn, philosophical aspect, which is observable in works like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and a happy-go-lucky humorous side. The latter is emerging as dominant in recent years.
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