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Film Review: Cafe (2023) by Navid Mihandoust

Navid Mihandoust has over 20 years of experience in cinema and television, working as a film director, director assistant, and screenwriter in several TV series and movies since 1999. On 20 August, he began serving a three-year prison sentence. Navid's unjust charges stem from a documentary about Iranian journalist and women's right activist Masih Alinejad's professional life – a documentary that was never released. Navid was initially arrested in 2019 when he endured two months of interrogations within Evin Prison's Ward. Subsequently, he was temporarily released on bail until the trial process concluded. In January 2021, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran issued a verdict, imposing a 3 1/2-year sentence based on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime through slogan writing.” This sentence was subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeals. During the three years that Navid was waiting for his sentence to be executed, he shot the feature film Cafe, independently and underground. (Source: International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk)

After being barred from shooting films, Sohrab runs a small cafe in Iran, which actually belongs to his fiance's uncle. Portraits of directors' are hanging above each of the tables and Sohrab does his work with detachment but also with a bit of fun, as his interactions with his friends that come highlight. His fiance is away, working on her PHd in geology, but their relationship seems to have no particular problems. At nights, he tries to finish the editing of a movie, which is also revealed to feature his alienated father, with whom he always fought for abandoning literature for cinema. The appearance of a young girl who wants to have a performance in his cafe complicates things on all fronts, after he agrees to have her and she gradually forces her way working in the cafe. And although Sohrab's actions seem illogical, including the keeping of an infant in a jar in his apartment, as the movie progresses, all his reasons are revealed.

Despite this being a minimalist movie which frequently resembles a stage play, the quality of the dialogues Navid Mihandoust presents here, and particularly the wit, humor, mockery and pessimism that permeates them result in a title that is a joy to watch from beginning to end. Sohrab embodies all these elements in the best fashion, with his verbal interactions with anyone whom he meets being the main source of entertainment here, but also of the comments Mihandoust wanted to make, which are both dramatic, and realistically political.

The rather illogical censorship of essentially any kind of art in Iran emerges as a central one, with Sohrab's courage also eventually being revealed as a type of giving up, at least the effort to make a change, although the way he goes about it can only be described as courageous. This aspect is what connects the political with the dramatic, with his relationship with his father, and the way he eventually alienates everyone around him moving into the same direction. Furthermore, the build up to the revelation regarding the reasons for the seemingly illogical decisions he makes, particularly regarding his fiance, is also excellent, as the filmmaker allows his audience to gradually realize them, while building empathy for his protagonist.

Ramin Sayar Dashti in the role is impressive throughout, retaining a rather difficult sense of measure even in the scenes where his feelings become evident, with his dialogues being as impactful as his monologues. DP Farhad Soleimani's capture both the setting of the cafe and the various exterior with realism, without any particular exaltations, although the scenes with the view are quite beautiful to watch. Parisa Parvin Nia's editing connects the various repeating elements of the narrative (cafe scenes, the director editing, the scene in the hills) elaborately, implementing a mid tempo that works quite well for the whole movie.

Films that are rather heavy on dialogue and light on any kind of action, are not exactly easy to watch, usually moving towards rather heavy, stage-play like productions that become tedious quite early on. Navid Mihandoust, however, seems to have managed to come up with a movie whose almost non-stop dialogues (and monologues for that matter) are a true treat to watch, with his wicked sense of humor in the face of everything that is irrational in Iran, both in the system and in the people, being essentially an act of defiance. Lastly, the similarities with his actual life add a very appealing meta level to the whole thing, highlighting that “Cafe” is a deceptively minimalist effort, and actually a rather rich, contextually, one.

  • This article is taken from Asian Movie Pulse weblog.

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