A low key comedy about a handful of men living on the Iran border
that, while staggering to behold at times, is an ultimately flawed
attempt to charm.
When a film’s main focus is addressing people’s boredom it is vital that you do not force it upon the audience. Kevin Smith made
his early career looking at how life for some can simply slip into
routine and disinterest. But his characters in a film like Clerks (1994) were accompanied by snappy dialogue to fill the dull existence. Babak Jalali’s Frontier Blues is like a Smith film and more in the vein of a Wes Anderson (Rushmore) but lacking in the intuitive sense of surreal and as a result remains flat and un-engaging.
The film looks at essentially four men living in a place where there is little to do but wait to die. Hassan (Karimi)
is the village idiot who lives with his uncle and spends the time
walking around with his donkey asking nonsensical questions. His uncle (Shahrivari) runs a clothes store where no one ever shops. Alam (Kalteh)
longs to leave the country and his job on a chicken farm so learns
English to facilitate his escape. All the while a former Turkman known
only as Mr. Minstrel (Dordi) spends his time posing for a photographer anxious to capture the spirit of the land.
This last plot is of particular significance to the film, as it seems
to bear an uncanny parallel with its parent. The photographer insists
that he is giving the people what they want to see, like a Turkman on a
white horse. Mr. Minstrel, towards the end of the film, finally losses
his patience with this charade and informs him that he knows nothing of
the country and how they live. Writer director Jalali seems to have
missed the irony in doing exactly the same with his film.
It is supposed to be a quirky comedy but is too such an extent that you never believe this is the way in which Iranian people actually exist.
While Jalali shoots the landscapes in beautiful wide shots he often
leaves his characters isolated in the frame, to emphasize the empty
existence of the characters. Think Lost In Translation and you have two
characters that are ultimately frustrated in a country they do not
understand. The key is that, as an audience, we are just as alienated by
the country as they are. This is not true of Frontier Blues.
Instead the characters are aware of the emptiness but have almost
embraced it. As a result the audience have little to identify with.
The performances do go some way to injecting some tragic comedy into the proceedings.
Karimi as Hassan could be lifted from any number of Wes Anderson films
with his goggle glasses and nerdy mannerisms. It works well and he
brings enough warmth to the role that when he losses his precious donkey
it does pull on the heart strings. As his uncle, Shahrivari maintains a
vacant expression of emotionless angst that only lends itself to the
downbeat nature of both the film and the character. Dordi is never
really given the chance to develop his character due to him posing for
photographs but there is empathy to be had with his frustration towards
the end. Kalteh on the other hand manages to evoke vast emotion without
ever really speaking. His story is overlooked until the end but when you
realise what his end goal was you admire his determination to change