Though he has insisted that he is not a political filmmaker, on December 20, 2010, the Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced Jafar Panahi to six years of incarceration and a twenty-year ban on directing any films, in lieu of his conviction for assembly and collusion to make propaganda against the Islamic Republic. This court decision did not silence him: over seven years later, Panahi continues to wage his war against ideological assimilation and challenge the voices that long to suppress even the most peaceful and benign expressions of discourse. In his newest illegally made film Three Faces, he plays himself in a meta scenario, true to his distinctive suturing of reality with artifice, that gently meditates on society’s pressures and the dichotomy of how things may not be what they appear.
Behnaz Jafari, a successful Iranian actress, abruptly leaves the film shoot where she’s working after she receives a disturbing video message. This video shows Marziyeh Rezaieh, a rural Kurdish-Iranian young woman. Marziyeh describes her aspirations of becoming an actress, laments her family and community’s resistance to her ambitions, and expresses disappointment at the difficulty of breaking through as an actress, as she marches to her eventual suicide by hanging from a branch in a cave. Marziyeh alludes to unreturned phone calls and text messages she has sent to Behnaz in which she pleaded for help to find opportunities in acting. This rattles Behnaz, who has no memory of them, and she stays up late into the night searching her phone in vain for any sign of these supplications.
Though they suspect that the footage of Marziyeh’s suicide may be faked (she and Jafar have made inquiries with local morgues that bear no leads), Behnaz is nevertheless convinced that she cannot be artistically fruitful at work as long as this image haunts her, so she and Jafar travel to Marziyeh’s rural hometown in pursuit of answers. As they arrive at this old world, conservative village, the majority of villagers of any age recognize her from a television show they watch religiously, and they welcome her and Jafar with open arms and earnest hospitality. The villagers are aware that Marziyeh has not been seen for three days (Behnaz and Jafar keep her alleged suicide to themselves), but most of them do not see this as sufficient cause for worry, save for her family who become frantic as they assume that Behnaz and Jafar’s reason for coming is to collect Marziyeh to begin her studies. While they seem not to judge her for her vocation, Behnaz listens to the locals describe their frustration and contempt for Marziyeh’s acting ambitions: they see her as silly and “empty-headed.” Marziyeh is not the only one in their town who has felt reproach for her passion for acting and entertainment: Shahrzad (along with Behnaz and Marziyeh – though always offscreen – she is the third titular face in three generations of actresses), their resident retired actress, has been banned from visiting other townspeople after the mayor unsuccessfully tried to chase her out of town.
One gets the impression that Three Faces is loaded with double meanings that will not be immediately understood by a Western audience, but this is not something that irreparably hurts the experience, and some of its insights will quickly catch a Westerner’s attention. Without judgemental superiority or sermonizing, Panahi shows how patriarchal society resists and punishes a woman’s ambitions in Three Faces’s documentation of the villagers’ annoyance with Marziyeh and how they see her desire to be educated (at the conservatory for acting) as something that would “dishonour the family.” Similarly, rigid expectations of gender emerge as they subvert Marziyeh’s resolve to widen a road to allow the passage of two vehicles, because it is not a woman’s work, even though the endeavour would be to their collective benefit, when they have routinely criticized her for behaviour they deem as untoward and frivolous.
While considerations of gender are expected in a film about attitudes in the Middle East, Three Faces also shows its desire to consider more philosophical abstractions. In the atmosphere-building first twenty minutes of the film, as Behnaz and Jafar weigh the likelihood of Marziyeh’s suicide, they consider different reasons why her message may or may not be genuine, what would drive someone to lie about something so austere, and to what avail? Is this truly a legitimate documentation, or has Marziyeh been coerced into filming this, and is she still in danger? They find the location where Marziyeh filmed her alleged suicide: the rope and the branch are gone. Is this proof that the scenario was deliberately calculated; could it be that her family is trying to cover up the evidence of her dishonourable suicide; or is this the work of an anonymous aggressor whose motives must still be discovered? Most of all, Behnaz and Jafar must reconcile the possibility that what they have seen with their eyes in this footage might not be what it appears, and as filmmakers who make a living out of coaxing an audience to suspend their disbelief, this question becomes creatively self-referential.
In spite of material that appears coded with allegory, thanks to Panahi’s creation of an infectiously enigmatic atmosphere and an otherwise linear narrative, Three Faces remains fascinating and engaging. Every moment of Three Faces is so dense with possibility and suggestion, that any difficulty keeping up with its philosophies and cultural insights is no barrier to one’s appreciation of the film, where the simple surface that contains all of this nuance is accommodating and accessible. It is not critically important to understand the significance of every beat, nor is it a film that can be entirely unpacked in a single viewing. Conversely, it is imperative to arrive at a less surprising, less intellectual, but certainly more human conclusion: in this gentle meditation on its villagers’ attitudes, Three Faces is able to admit their flaws, and still convey its admiration for these people’s generosity and passionate, if not unconditional, support for each other. In the West, it is becoming far too common for people who object to another’s opinions to simply ostracize them. Panahi understands that it is impossible for everyone to arrive at the same definition of truth, and his message of kindness for people with different perspectives is a timely lesson that bears repetition.