No Bears Movie Review

Sideshow/ Janus Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Jafar Panahi
Screenwriter: Jafar Panahi
Cast: Naser Hashemi, Reza Heydrari, Mina Kavani, Bülent Keser, Mina Khosrovani, Vahid Mobasheri, Jafar Panahi, Bakhtiyar Panjeei, Sinan Yusufoglu
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/13/22

“No Bears” might get the attention of movie fans outside the elite community that watch less commercial, more artistic fare, since Jafar Panahi, in prison since July 2022 on yet another charge of creating anti-government propaganda, was unable to be present at the Venice Film Festival to receive the Grand Jury prize. One of Iran’s most influential filmmakers, Panahi refuses to be intimidated, making “No Bears” secretly within Iran, including a set that serves as a Turkish village.

In one sense a tribute to the art of filmmaking, “No Bears” opens on a scene in a Turkish village right on the Iranian border, where Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Penjei) seek false passport that would allow them to flee to France. Because the documents did not arrive on time, Bakhtiar urges Zara to continue without him, but Zara, who in a later scene will remove her blond wig, cries that she can never leave without him. At that point the assistant director calls “cut,” while just over the border, Panahi is smoking a cigarette and directing remotely on his laptop. We will later see how life follows fiction, but the easiest theme to appreciate is the difference between tradition and the contemporary life, between the culture of a village and that of a big city like Tehran.

Panahi does not take all the credit for himself. He sees his host Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri) heading to an engagement party in which in the interest of purity, women will watch the feet of the bride while the groom gets his cleansed by men. He asks Ghanbar to shoot as much film as he can. (The purity exercise may remind some of the Mikvah bath that Orthodox Jewish women take here in the U.S.

Tradition is about to blow up against Panahi when he is accused of taking a picture of the aforementioned bride and groom while the two are sitting under a walnut tree. The woman has been promised to another, and the villagers, sticking up for the young couple, seem willing to tear Panahi to pieces if he does not hand over the picture. Sounds like the kind of dispute that could arise here even in a modern city if a guy expects to pass around a nude photo of a girl, who is terrified that such an event could take place. Panahi repeats his innocence to the sheriff, but the villagers are not buying.

A side trip by Panahi to his assistant Ghanbar’s mother (Narjes Delarem) in which the elderly woman cooks for the director could remind us here of the stereotypical Jewish mother who makes sure that her children’s friends are plied with food as though they would starve without the largesse.

The bears in the film’s title refer to a superstitious fear of the animal, symbolic of the government’s oppression, its using everything it can think of to keep the people down. Panahi comes across this time with subdued filmmaking, a treasure to the audience that can appreciate his modus operandi. In Farsi with English subtitles.

107 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

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