Directed by Alireza Raisian
from a story by Abbas Kiarostami
Like many Iranian films, The Deserted Station is vulnerable to absurd interpretations by Western reviewers because of its metaphoric nature. Writing for the BBC, Jamie Russell begins his analysis of this spiritually transcendent film with, “The sexual politics of the veil make for haunting viewing in Deserted Station.” This film, signposted with clear religious references for the Iranian viewer, is no more about sexual politics than Casablanca is about nightclub ownership. The film is actually a statement about the connection between social consciousness and worship.
The film begins with a well-to-do couple driving to the famous shrine city of Mashhad to supplicate for a child. The husband is a nonbeliever in such superstitions. He has agreed to the journey because he loves his beautiful wife and wishes to make her happy. As they debate the reality of miracles, suddenly the wife sees a deer jump across the road. She screams and the startled husband swerves the car into a ditch. As Iranians know, the deer is the symbol of Imam Reza, the saint that is buried at Mashhad, the couple’s destination. On seeing the deer the Iranian viewer is reminded of the following story:
A hunter has trapped a deer and is about to slay it when Imam Reza shows up to intercede. The deer whispers something in Imam Reza’s ear and he interprets for the hunter. “This deer is a mother,” says Imam Reza to the skeptical hunter. “Its fawns will starve if you kill her. She promises that if you release her she will return after she feeds her young and submit to be slaughtered.” The hunter is hesitant, but Imam Reza vouches for the deer and the hunter dubiously lets her go. But when the deer returns with fawns in tow, the hunter is so amazed that he forfeits his claim to her life. This is why Imam Reza is known as Imam-e-Zamen—the saint who vouches for the weak.
The viewer has been previously prepared for this pivotal metaphor with a humorous man-and-wife argument over how dense men can be when it comes to subtlety, or seen from his point of view, how paranoid women appear when they see hidden meaning in everything. Again, this is interpreted by Western reviewers as sexual politics because they are unaware of the context. Similarly these reviewers misinterpret the opening scene of the movie where it does not become apparent until later that the wife is also in the car. They see this invisibility as an allegory for a woman’s lack of importance in Iranian society. But to the Iranian viewer, the hidden presence and surprising appearance is a brilliant telegraphing of the miracle that is about to occur.
Having seen Imam Reza’s sign, we are now ready to meet him—or his avatar—in person. He comes to the rescue of the stranded couple in the form of a jack-of-all-trades mobile mechanic. His name is Faizollah (God’s generosity) and he is also the only barber, farmer, politician, vet, and school teacher in this patch of desert land. Seeing that the damaged car part needs to be taken to a town for straightening, Faizollah asks the wife to substitute at his makeshift village school.
While the men are away, the wife becomes acquainted with the inhabitants of this strange village, located in an abandoned rock-and-mud fortress built eons ago. The only connection with the outside world is the train that passes on its way to the shrine city. With one or two exceptions, the denizens are old women and children. The men go away for long periods to work, and the young women move away as soon as they are married. The children are effectively orphans. Here we encounter every form of human suffering—poverty, abandonment, illiteracy, sickness--all the ills against which an Imam is supplicated. We learn that Faizollah comes every day to teach school, farm the land, attend to the kids’ sanitation, keep the itinerant vendors from taking advantage of them, whatever he can.
Soon the wife and the children become emotionally entangled. As she and the viewer feel the depth of their sorrow, we begin to dread the inevitable disappointment when it comes time for her to leave.
The more we learn about each child, the more exhausting the tension becomes. This is not plot tension, but the much more difficult to achieve character tension. For example, among the children there’s one who has unsuccessfully tried to hop the train to see where the end of the line is. Once her car is fixed, the heroine can easily take him to the shrine city and show him, but the enormous burden of the child’s needs works against such happy resolutions. On a metaphorical level we identify with this child because we too want to know where the train goes. A nightmarish sequence in the film shows us a deserted boneyard of trains that no longer go to the shrine city. Time is a one way trip to death and dust for those of us who no longer strive for spiritual attainment.
Here, sitting in a dead train watching a live one whiz towards its destination, the heroine experiences a moment of revelation. The revelation is not played out until it is time for her and her husband to drive away. The children want her to stay, so she makes a food offering to appease them. When that doesn’t work, she offers gifts. When that also fails, she is confronted with the task of accepting her revelation or abandoning it. As a child puts his hands on her car the way a supplicant puts his hands on the shrine of Imam Reza, the message of the movie comes rushing through this single still image. Nearly 90 minutes of film have prepared us for its impact.
To be sure, among the many injustices this film supplicates the Iranian viewer to remedy, the treatment of women is not forgotten. For instance, in one scene Imam Reza’s avatar, Faizollah, cannot see a truckload of women being transported by insidious looking men. It is as though this benefactor of humanity has a blind spot. But this criticism of the Islamic regime, reproaching it in its own language of piety, is a far more relevant rebuke than the obligatory Western censure of solemn Islamic clothing. The heroine, played by the beautiful Leila Hatami, wears her outfit with all the dignity of a Supreme Court justice. Her poise and beauty absolutely stun, even though we see only her face.
Writer Abbas Kiarostami and director Alireza Raisian are not renegade artists as Western movie reviewers like to tell us. In a world that is being flattened by uniformity, they are geniuses with the imagination to create masterpieces within the framework of their own unique culture and religion.