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‘Cafe’: Thessaloniki Review

Jailed Iranian filmmaker Navid Mihanoust presents an self-referential tale of a director living in limbo while waiting for a prison sentence

Dir: Navid Mihandoust. Iran. 2023. 96mins

This satirical tale of an Iranian director who is running a coffee shop while waiting to see if a jail sentence will be enacted at the same time as navigating his turbulent personal life may seem absurdist, but it is at least partially autobiographical. Director Navid Mihandoust began serving his own three-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison in August 2023 after being charged with ’acting against national security’ and ’propaganda against the regime through slogan writing’. The charges relate to an unreleased 2009 documentary about Masih Alinejad, a journalist and women’s rights activist. Like his countryman Jafar Panahi, a ban on filmmaking didn’t stop Mihandoust and, in the three years he was waiting for the sentence to be enacted, he made this film.

Cafe premiered in Thessaloniki’s Open Horizons, and further festival play and arthouse interest seem highly likely going forward; not just because of the filmmaker’s personal story but because of the accessible nature of the film, scripted by David Mihandoust, which interweaves its more melancholy moments with a considerable amount of humour.

We meet Sohrab (veteran stage star Ramin Sayar Dashti) in the middle of a dream that is immediately likely to win over cinephiles as it is composed of snippets of Krystof Kieslowski’s work. Although seemingly random in the moment – as though the Polish auteur’s films ”have been given to a dumb editor,” as Sohrab puts it – it acts as a sort of emotional flip-book of what lies ahead, as ideas encountered here (including a marionette, a lawyer and a regretful son) are heard through the course of the film.

As Sohrab relates the dream the following morning, it becomes apparent that his breakfast companion is an embryo in a jar, whose identity will soon be revealed. The jar represents just one facet of the tension that exists between Sohrab and his wife Mahgol (Mahsa Mahjour), who is studying for a geology doctorate in Isfahan and trying to persuade him over video messages to leave the country with her. There’s a playfulness to the scripting, which brings humour even though the couple are discussing serious things. “Which is more important to you, your marriage or your stupidity?” she asks in a voice message. “Our marriage is part of my stupidity,” he texts back.

At the coffee shop, with its walls lined with photos of famous directors, including Kieslowski, Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch – all of whom could be said to exert some influence here – he has a surprise visitor. Berke (Setareh Maleki) is a young student who wants to use his cafe for a series of interactive performances. Despite insisting he is “conservative” and knowing full well he’s under surveillance from the authorities, Sohrab agrees, and it is not long before she is setting up shop in a locked cage with the sign, ’Who will help me?’ next to her. As the friendship between him and Berke grows, Sohrab is also coming under increasing pressure from powers that be to turn informant in order to commute his sentence further.

In his off-hours we see Sohrab working on the edit of a film involving children, and his father talking about everything from wishes to God. Meanwhile, opting not to reveal secrets to those who ask for them is set to cost the director liberty. Behind the humour, this is a film that revolves around ideas of choice, the moral dilemmas that can lie behind the decisions people make and the ulterior motives which may not always be immediately apparent.

In the real world, Mihandoost is continuing to make courageous choices. In the week before his film’s premiere it was reported that he had been moved to solitary confinement in Evin. The International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk, among others, continues to call for his release.

Contact: Neda Mihandoust

Producers: Esmaeel Mihandoust, David Mihandoust

Screenplay: David Mihandoust

Cinematography: Farhad Soleimani

Production manager: Sepideh Sepehri

Editing: Parisa Parvin Nia

Music: Fardin Khalatbari

Main cast: Ramin Sayar Dashti, Setareh Maleki, Mahsa Mahjoor, Mehdi Sajadifar, Masood Esmaeeli

  • This article is taken from ScreenDaily website.

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