Movie Reviews: “Argo” and “Rhino Season”

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Within a week I saw two movies revolving around the Islamic Revolution, the moment in 1979 when the Iranian people gave the boot to the Shah, a much-hated, U.S.-backed oppressive bastard. 

The harvest was arguably even worse: the Ayatollah Khomeini, a popular, U.S.-bucking oppressive bastard.

It was interesting to see one take on events from a Western Hollywood perspective (Ben Affleck’s Argo) and another from an Iranian one (Bahman Gobadi’s Rhino Season, which I caught at the 48th Chicago International Film Festival).

Rhino Season, a grueling, starkly beautiful Turkish drama, tells the true story of Iranian poet Sahel Farzan (veteran actor Behrouz Vossoughi), thrown in prison in the wake of the Islamic Revolution for writing "anti-regime poetry."

Monica Belluci plays his lover Mina, a daughter of privilege. There was a strong correlation between class and a secular, Western lifestyle: In their happy pre-revolution days, Sahel and Mina look very "1970s." 

Mina’s disturbed driver (Yilmaz Erdogan) is madly in love with her, and during the score-settling that follows the revolution, this spurned, jealous man becomes a hidden interrogator, taking advantage of the revolution to separate the lovers in prison (and of a hooded conjugal visit to rape Mina).

Behrouz Vossoughi's haunted eyes express regret beyond words, as does the score. Dampening her natural gorgeousness in haggard sadness, Belluci portrays Mina with quiet dignity. 

One might say that covering up Belluci’s gorgeous body in the chador is itself a crime, emblematic of all that was wrong with this revolution (in one scene, devout women undress her, mocking her viciously all the while as a whore).

Freed after decades in prison, Sahel journeys to Istanbul. He gazes up at the house on the sea where Mina has built a life with the family that flowered from the rape, including a daughter who has grown up to be a reluctant prostitute (Beren Saat). 

It’s a life that even includes a complicated relationship with the driver, now grey. Still, she never forgot Sahel, though told he was dead. Whereas once she covered her cell in calligraphy, etching his words into the walls, now she tattoos his words onto people’s bodies.

Presented by Martin Scorsese, this is striking, deeply-felt filmmaking from Bahman Gobadi. It grasps for a visual equivalent for that aspect of poetry that will always confound political hacks of all stripes: the way it speaks in images and metaphors. 

Poetry is "political" only in the sense that it is a personal expression of the human heart; a yearning for freedom and love (at times we hear a woman’s voice reading Farzan’s poems). 

Turtles fall from the sky while Saleh is left exposed to winter in a desolate courtyard. He finds peace in shimmering underwater shots, even in the eye of torture.

Gobadi’s palette is wintry, his camera crawling against walls, gazing through rain-streaked windshields to create compositions of dramatic perspective.

Argo is the true story of a CIA agent’s (Ben Affleck) so-crazy-it-just-might-work plot to shepherd six U.S. foreign service workers out of Iran in the wake of the Islamic revolution by having them pretend to be a film crew shooting a non-existent sci-fi movie (Argo, inspired by the agent’s son's love for Star Wars). 

Affleck’s boy is about the same age as I would have been at the time. Hollywood becomes an emblem of America's childlike view of the world, reflecting our fantasy view of ourselves as the universe’s good guys, but also of something truly great. This is, after all, the only land that could create a Star Wars

Hollywood, the dream factory, may be uniquely American, but it tickles something universal, for good or ill. Even the Iranian guards think the posters for Argo are pretty cool.

A mainstream American picture that understands the world is a rarity, and Affleck gets the nuances, whether of U.S./Iran relations or movie politics in Hollywood. 

The casting is top-notch, including funny turns by Alan Arkin as a gruff veteran producer, John Goodman as the makeup guy roped in to make the movie," and Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s boss. The only choice that didn’t quite ring true for me, actually, is Affleck himself as the hero. 

The filmmakers have done an excellent job of making these people not only look, but feel like they exist in the 1970s.   

When he lets the tension grow out of a situation, Affleck is an excellent thriller director. The opening sequence, where protestors storm the U.S. embassy, is a nail-biter. To watch it is to be thrown into the situation. 

Sometimes, though, he gilds the lily, as in a scene where everything hinges on a suspicious guard's phone call to Arkin and Goodman and they’re kept from crossing the set as the phone rings. 

Still, this is the kind of riveting night at the movies we're always hoping for but of which we don't get enough. You want to cheer, if only because as a traveler, you know how hard it is to run the gauntlet at airports…even without fake passports.

Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other music and film reviews at The Moving World.