Directed by Tahmineh Milani
The Iranian box office comedy hit, Ceasefire, shows a man and woman in bed together, but the movie still nominally obeys the Iranian film decency code. The feuding husband and wife have sawed the bed in half. Similarly, a bed sheet always magically wraps itself around the actress’s head like a chador. Male and female actors touch each other but only in fight scenes, shoving each other around. These ploys outline an unspoken rapprochement between internationally-acclaimed filmmaker Tahmineh Milani and Iranian cultural authorities. In return for some liberties, Milani moderates her criticism of Iranian society. No more despotic fathers-in-law as in The Fifth Reaction, no more thugs throwing acid at women’s faces as in Two Women. In previous films Milani attacked relentlessly. In Ceasefire… well, it’s an honest title.
Milani aficionados will long for the foreboding air of menace that was her trademark. They will miss that unbearable fury she used to summon against the unjust. What remains, however, is her signature shrillness and over-the-top dramatization. Scene after scene we watch the quarrelling couple play childish pranks on each other. They smash each other’s favorite glassware, dump dirt on each other’s heads, destroy clothing, sabotage dinner parties, all juvenile antics akin to tying shoelaces together. Originality or suggestiveness--such as grapefruit in the face--would have broken the tedium, but innovation has also declared a ceasefire.
Milani has never engaged in the poetic explorations that make Iranian film a worldwide phenomenon. She does not pretend to be a Makhmalbaaf or a Kiarostami. Her plots demand little of the audience, her characters are readily fathomable. She makes no apologies for this earthiness. Usually she makes up for it by extracting unforgettable performances from her actors. This time she has not been as careful with her casting. Ceasefire has no actors on a par with Gohar Kheirandish, whose lion-hearted Zir Madineh stole the show in The Fifth Reaction.
One wonders why Milani has softened her militancy. Some Iranian women artists are catching on to the way the West uses their work as a propaganda tool against Iran, their fame a pact with the Devil. But an earlier Milani film, Two Women, offers a more introverted motivation. In one of her most moving scenes Niki Karimi’s character pleads with her tyrannical husband to become her friend. Ceasefire looks like an olive branch held out in desperation by a woman artist towards her patriarchal society. In this comedy we glimpse the director’s sad spark of hope that the subjugation of women in Iran can be analyzed rationally and resolved to the satisfaction of both men and women.
To start fresh Milani airs out the stench of misogyny from her sets, and perfumes with comedy what odor remains. The sets are colorful and well lit. The successful husband and wife drive expensive European cars and live in a house with modern furniture and a state-of-the-art home entertainment center. The in-laws are supportive, the neighbors are friendly. The couple don’t seem to have any needs other than the need to grow up. This is the most serious problem with the movie. Aside from their good looks there is nothing there to make us like this ever squabbling couple. In Star Wars, the bickering Han Solo and Princess Leia were endearing because the lovers were in deep trouble with the Evil Empire. Their trivial banter stood in ironic contrast to their noble purpose. In Ceasefire, however, the Evil Empire has been cut out of the plot altogether, leaving us with nothing but pettiness.
A curious gay character stiffens the soggy plot with some physical comedy. Judging by audience laughter this character’s dandified manner is a big hit with Iranians. Americans have little room for indignation here--Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Will Ferrell also draw laughs with this stereotype. In an Iranian movie, however, the appearance of a gay man may telegraph a loosening of Iran’s rigid codes of public conduct. Here Milani as an artist is participating in social reform. Cultures that disengage their sexuality from their morality tend to replace the old taboos with more humane ones, such as eliminating the death penalty.
Unfortunately, Milani gets so caught up in improving her society that she neglects her primary role as director and screenwriter. As a result she does too much preaching and not enough story telling. The intriguing plot-character interactions that enlightened us with their irony, have been replaced by a tiresome therapist character, lecturing about our inner child, telling us what to think and feel.
The fact that Ceasefire has shattered box office records in Iran is understandable. The movie is comic relief in a nation starved for optimism and lightheartedness. Also, the social messages in the movie offer safe and entertaining activism, a luxury previously available mostly in the West. Having lightened her load, Milani now operates as a reformer, patiently taking small, practical steps. As a filmmaker, however, she has fallen out of the saddle. It may take tough competition and demanding critics to put this director back on her high horse.