@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Mon 15 Apr 2019

For a man currently halfway through a 20-year ban on making films in his native Iran, Jafar Panahi isn’t resting on his laurels.  Panahi, despite not being allowed to leave his home country, has made four films in that time.  In his latest, he blurs the line between documentary and fiction as mystery and road movie elements combine with gentle realism and a heartfelt tribute to one of the greats of Iranian cinema.

Well-known actress Behnaz Jafari (playing herself) receives a video featuring the apparent suicide of an aspiring young actress who claims she had reached out to her.  Distraught, she enlists the help of her filmmaker friend Panahi (again, himself) to drive out to the girl’s village near the Turkish and Azerbaijani border and find out if the video is real or staged.

Panahi’s pseudo-documentary approach plays with the mutability of identity in much the same way as the late, great Abbas Kiarostami did in his work. It’s surely no accident that much of 3 Faces takes place in a car driving through the same arid Persian scenery like that in Kiarostami’s celebrated Taste of Cherry. There is even an amusing moment featuring a freshly-dug grave that echoes that film.

Panahi has wider concerns than a simple love letter to a departed legend though.  For a relatively simple narrative filmed in necessarily guerrilla circumstances, 3 Faces has a lot on its mind.  The central mystery takes a back seat to issues of gender, class and small-town life against worldly city living.  The title refers to the idea of the actress at three stages – aspiring, successful, and in the unseen figure of a former star residing in the village since she was forced to retire after the 1979 revolution, a has-been.

The men of the village, although kindly and generous souls and warmly depicted, are still stolidly patriarchal and while respectful to Behnaz Jafari, still defer to her male companion (the fact that they speak Turkish-Azeri rather than Persian excludes her further).  They are far less warm when talking of the ’empty-headed’ young girl (her family’s refusal to allow her to pursue her dreams of acting sets the story in motion) or the reclusive former star who has achieved witch-like notoriety among the villagers.  Masculine reputation is also examined, with an injured stud bull acting as a symbol for blunted virility and a belief in the mystical power of the foreskin gently lampooned.  Panahi gently prods his targets rather than interrogates them, and as such raises more wry nods of recognition than bristling outrage, which makes for a pleasant viewing experience but lacks a certain potency, ironically given part of its thematic focus.

3 Faces is a more sedate and gentle affair than you would perhaps expect from a political dissident, but when the very act of film-making itself becomes protest one can easily overlook the lack of sloganeering.  It’s otherwise admirable subtlety and low-key humour keeps it rooted at the level of intriguing rather than exciting, but it has optimism and generosity of spirit that the average polemic surely lacks.