Panah Panahi’s debut feature – which has been insensitively described as an “Iranian Little Miss Sunshine” – is a road-trip comedy with very high stakes
Leaving home for the first time can be a painful experience for parent and child alike, but what if you’re leaving for another country on pain of arrest? Panah Panahi’s feature debut is a road-trip comedy where the stakes are much higher than we’re used to seeing in such stories. It’s a film freighted with personal meaning: Panah is the son of Jafar Panahi, pioneering figure of the Iranian New Wave and, as of this month, one of three directors rounded up by the state and thrown in prison for making anti-regime propaganda. But Panahi’s Hit the Road is also a film that speaks to everyday pleasures as well as deep pain – the delicious melodrama of old Iranian pop songs; the natural beauty of a country often thought of as barren and rocky; the trials of having a kid who can play you like a fiddle.
The plot to Panahi’s film is simple, the details purposely vague – a mother and father undertake a perilous journey from Tehran to the Turkish border, where their eldest son, Farid (Amin Simiar), will be smuggled out of the country. (Their youngest, referred to affectionately by his dad as “little fart”, is a master of backseat annoyance played with precocious comic timing by Rayan Sarlak.) His parents, we learn, have had to sell their house to pay Farad’s bail money on charges that remain unspecified, and to make good his escape. Along the way, they run over a cyclist, who offers some choice thoughts on the arbitrary nature of transgression en route to the hospital, and there is a series of tenderly observed scenes that reveal more about the family’s eccentricities. Hassan Madjooni plays the hangdog dad with a deep well of sadness behind the eyes only partly concealed by his curmudgeonly exterior. And there’s a great moment when Mum (the luminous Pantea Panahiha) flips through a series of old photos she took of pee-stains left on the mattress by Farad as a child: “If this was the west, these would go in an art gallery,” she says proudly.
Hit the Road has been described as an Iranian Little Miss Sunshine, which seems a little off to me – there are jokes, certainly, but there are no “learning moments” of the sort with which American indie cinema is obsessed. Here, there is only a painful, and consciously suppressed, realisation that a family is being broken apart for their son to have a decent life. Cars in American mythology symbolise freedom, the ability to create and recreate the self away from the shackles of the past. In Iran, said Panahi in a recent interview, “the way we use cars is very different from anywhere else … Because we don’t have a good transport system, and we’re somewhere where the basic rules of free society aren’t really respected, people take refuge in their cars. There’s much less policing: if your headscarf slips you won’t get in as much trouble … you can listen to your own music. They’ve become like our second homes.”
As their journey nears its end, we get a long scene between father and son, shot in a single unbroken take, where the two dance touchingly around what neither man can bring themselves to say. (Farad: “I appreciate your support.” Dad: “Shut up.”) The key moment of departure is shot at a respectful distance, the family silhouetted against a beautiful sunset, as if the scene is too painful to witness at close quarters. But Panahi leaves us with a moment of magical realism which we won’t spoil here – suffice to say, it’s a joyful moment that rewrites the family’s tragedy as one of defiant celebration.