Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces expands far beyond its initial mystery

Like in Vertigo or Seven, the central conundrum is resolved sooner than expected.

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The 20-year film-making ban imposed on Jafar Panahi in 2010 by the Iranian regime, incorporating six years under house arrest, has perhaps not panned out as his oppressors might have hoped. 3 Faces is the fourth picture Panahi has written, directed and acted in under these trying circumstances, and the first not to put his predicament at the centre of its story. Like his last film, Taxi Tehran, which was confined to a car rigged with tiny digital cameras, the new one hinges on a road trip. Iranian cinema has a tradition of grappling with politics, morality and philosophy from behind the wheel – the late Abbas Kiarostami put the pedal ever so gently to the metal in Taste of Cherry and Ten – since the car is one of the few spaces that is both private and public at the same time. Dissent may be expressed there without fear of repercussions.

Panahi is the driver in 3 Faces, as he was in Taxi Tehran. His passenger this time is the actor Behnaz Jafari, who also plays herself. That’s another thing about Iranian cinema: the intersection of art and life, with people portraying themselves in fictional narratives or in re-stagings of real events (Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple), is always sparky and fruitful. In Taxi Tehran, for instance, Panahi played a version of himself who turns to picking up fares when he is no longer allowed to make films; this was one cabbie who kept the meta running.

Jafari and Panahi are on their way to a remote village in the north-west of Iran. They have received footage of a young woman, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), who is distraught because her family has thwarted her dreams of becoming an actor. The video ends with what appears to be her suicide. Jafari is concerned for the girl but also worried that the footage might be bogus. As she and Panahi debate the authenticity of that film, we admire the verisimilitude of this one: the long takes that preserve the integrity of the action, the resourceful use of light sources (the bleak glow from a mobile phone, the glare of headlights when Jafari paces in front of the car) to keep the actors illuminated in unpromising conditions.

As they press on, the pair come across a series of clues and portents, doom-mongers and eccentrics. There is a wedding party on the outskirts of Marziyeh’s village – surely a good sign, since such celebrations would never go ahead in the aftermath of a death. A conversation with a woman lying in an open grave, on the other hand, bodes less well. It’s around this point that Jafari starts to lose patience: “It’s all a set-up! That girl is playing with us!” Next she wonders if Panahi has engineered the whole situation himself. After all, he was preparing a movie about suicide with a part in it for her. Could the odyssey they are on be the very same project?

3 Faces turns out to be one of those films, like Vertigo or Seven, where the central conundrum is resolved far sooner than expected, in a way that takes the emphasis off the whodunnit element, or in this case the did-she-do-it? one, and allows the film to expand beyond its initial mystery. Panahi has already made one decisive study of gender oppression (his fiery 2006 comedy Offside, in which a female soccer fan disguises herself as a man to try to get into a match) and it is into this territory that 3 Faces proceeds with warmth, curiosity and ultimately anger. The villagers describe the girl as “an empty-headed brat” and claim that “we don’t want entertainers here”, while an old woman has been banished to the outskirts because of her own history as an actor. Male power and virility, though, are revered, whether embodied by a matinee idol or a prize bull (“Golden balls!”). A young boy’s foreskin, believed to contain magical powers, is treated with greater tenderness here than the life of a teenage girl.

In the final scene, the camera gazes out at two women padding along a winding country road, the tranquillity of the shot compromised by the cracked windscreen through which we are viewing it. As with the rest of the film, it presents for our
inspection a damaged image and asks: what’s wrong with this picture? 

3 Faces (15)
dir: Jafar Panah

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty