The House Is Black is a deceptively simple film that's easy to summarize and yet completely elusive when it comes to attempting a thematic or critical description (even in the liner notes accompanying Facets's DVD release, it is compared to films with sensibilities as diverse as Freaks and Land Without Bread). It is the only film from Forough Farrokhzad, possibly Iran's most noted and controversial female poet. A look inside a leper colony, the documentary short has been called "the greatest of all Iranian films" by Jonathan Rosenbaum, and is (now) frequently referred to as one of the lynchpins of the Iranian New Wave. Following an opening statement accompanying a black screen that simultaneously warns and invites viewers to gaze upon that which society has deemed horrifying, Farrokhzad trains her lens insistently on the decay of human faces in bleak honesty, observing the lepers' flaccid eyelids (incapable of doing the biological job of protecting the eyes behind them from flies), the crusty, flaking stumps that used to be their feet, and their exposed nose cavities completely devoid of cartilage (one of them casually and surreally exhales cigarette smoke from the orfice). While showing the leper community forging an ersatz societal representation of normalcy—old gents playing board games, women dressing up and donning make-up for what appears to be a wedding march (and once you've seen a woman apply mascara to the inside of her eyelid, the image will not soon leave your head), kids tossing a plastic ball around the courtyard—Farrokhzad soundtracks her images with an alternating narration. A male voice (whose detached matter-of-factness brings to mind a contemporary Jean-Luc Godard at his most bemused) unpacks the medical implications of the condition, gently reminding the audience that leprosy is a treatable condition, provided the proper expediency, in what constitutes the film's most salient instance of activism. But between the clinical dialogue (in every sense of the definition) are snips of poetry by Farrokhzad, read by the author herself, that elevates the colony's plight to the level of that Old Testament paragon of unanswered and cruel kismet: Job. If Farrokhzad's poetic sensibilities were said to be both preoccupied with Eastern mores and influenced by Western modernism, then The House is Black authoritatively clears the path for such aesthetic dilettantism.
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This is the part of the nuts-and-bolts section where I stress that making a film like The House Is Black available in the first place is a supreme generosity on Facets Video's part. And that should also be taken as the most important statement, overriding all that follows. Granted, The House Is Black has spent nearly half a century in total neglect, from a nation whose cinema had been nearly invisible until a few years ago, and thus a sparkling clean print is hardly a reasonable expectation. But Facets's audio/video transfer looks and sounds like at least a second-generation videotape boot. The non-removable, white-colored English subtitles also unfortunately bleed occasionally into the whites of the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography.
Facets has thoughtfully included two short films from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who counts Farrokhzad as one of his major influences-The School that Was Blown Away, a sedate parable (one seemingly told in sentence fragments) about a school tent that blew away in a windstorm and knocked one student on the head and the subsequent visit from a man the school's teacher suspects is an inspector, and Images from the Qajar Dynasty, which crosses dolly shots of impossibly crystalline palace interiors with early Iranian photographs and film clips. Also included is a snip from a PBS documentary on "Adventure Divas" featuring an interview with Farrokhzad's sister Pooran. But probably the most important extra feature is the Xeroxed-looking Cine-Notes booklet featuring a number of critical and historical essays on the film and Farrokhzad's influence on Iranian culture written by Rosenbaum, Susan Doll and Chris Marker.
One of the prototypal essay films, The House Is Black paved the way for the Iranian New Wave.