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Ayatollah you once, ayatollah you again: Abbas Headline:Kiarostami's movies just aren't that interesting

Thanks to an occassional entry in the old Worldfest film festival, we knew that Iran was why past tense? in a surprising filmmaking boom. The surprise comes in part because of sheer numbers -- the country produces scant? generous? 50 films a year -- but mostly because it's hard to imagine that a country willing to impose the fatwa on Salman Rushdie could also produce powerful, adventurous cinema. Almost as intriguing is the fact that, despite our widely held view that Iranian women have a rotten deal, Tehran might have more women directors at work than does Hollywood.

I'm not sure what any of this means, other than that Iran must be a more complicated and interesting place than its image here in the States would indicate.

As for the movies themselves, I have to confess that none of the small handful I've seen have wowed me, including the two under discussion here. The first film in the MFA's double feature, Where is My Friend's Home?, opens with the intimidating notice: produced by The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Appropriately, it opens in a small, tattered classroom, as a droning, self-righteous teacher is threatening an eight-year-old with expulsion if he forgets to bring his notebook one more time.

When one of the intimidated boy's classmates, Ahmad, winds up with the poor fellow's notebook by mistake, he is consumed with worry. He has to return the notebook so his classmate won't be unfairly punished. But his mother won't hear of his going to the neighboring town where the other boy lives, so Ahmad has to sneak out on his mission of mercy. The film then spends an hour or so following Ahmad as he searches for the other boy's house. He runs back and forth between the villages, he follows false leads, he searches in vain until dark.

This constant knocking on doors becomes a bit tedious; it essentially stays on the same level. Each of Ahmad's false leads feels pretty much like any other. The film does offer some visual compensations, though: The village he roams through is carved out of the side of a hill, and looks like the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And you get the sense that filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami got away with something here: He portrays the tradition-bound elders in rather a bad light, and seems to beg them to listen to the little fellow, who is just trying to do the right thing. Still, there isn't quite enough to engage with here.

But And Life Goes On offers even less, despite the glowing notices it has won in The New York Times and elsewhere. This second film of the double feature has an interesting premise: After an earthquake has devastated the area in which Where is My Friend's House? was filmed, the director of the first film drives out to see if his former actors are all right (the director is played by Farhad Kheradmand). This looks to be a engaging study of the relationship between filmmaker and subject -- and between art and life, for that matter -- but the whole business is curiously flat. Much of the film concerns the director's search for a passable road that will lead to the village. Maybe the film's Iranian audience was able to read something into this search for an open road (which plays much like the Ahmad's quest, but with less visual interest), but I couldn't. And when he does find a surviving cast member, the result is pretty much "How are you doing?" "I survived, Allah be praised" -- it stays on a surface level. The "director" does not engage emotionally with the earthquake victims, who seem all too aware of the camera crew.

The film offers a couple of good moments, such as when an old woman asks the director to dig her kettle out of the rubble because she hasn't had any tea for three days. But it doesn't give enough to make these films anything more than curiosity pieces.

The Museum of Fine Arts will show Where Is My Friend's Home? at 8 p.m. Friday, December 3, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 4. And Life Goes On will follow at 9:45 p.m. Friday and 9:15 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $6 for both films; $5 for second feature only. Call 639-7515 for more information.

 
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