Familiar as I am with Iranian cinema, I’m in no way intimate enough with the country’s more classical traditions to fully appreciate the literary precedents for many of Iron Island’s images. But thankful as I am that we have people like Godfrey Cheshire to suss out the connections for us (an essay by this devoted scholar of Iranian cinema is tellingly attached to the film’s press notes), I don’t wish to give the impression that this delicate work can only be appreciated with a set of footnotes. Mohammad Rasoulof’s examination of life on board a decrepit tanker in the Persian Gulf is anything but obtuse—it’s clear-sighted and compassionate, a mythic expression of people in a constant state of flux. With the aid of Captain Nemat (Ali Nasirian), the mostly Arab population aboard the ship carves out an existence away from the prying and disdainful hands of the outside world. With little fuss, Rasoulof details the means by which this floating society operates from inside, but more interesting are his expressions of how the dignified community struggles to maintain a sense of self-sufficiency. The director reveres the allegiance of his characters, and in the scene of boys jumping into the ocean with oil barrels and swimming to shore he conveys their closeness as an inimitable tribal ritual. The ship, a complex metaphor for political and personal tensions in Iran, begins to sink but certainly not with the hopes of its people. They trudge on in spite of their loss, which is part of why it’s impossible to accuse the film of cheap sentimentality and facile social critique. An even-handed Rasoulof’s vision of people in a perpetual state of migration acknowledges the struggle of minorities left to their own devices and their self-devouring instinct in times of crisis. In this way, the film is both an elegy to the oppressed and a call for majority compassion.
Kino on Video presents Iron Island in an anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 transfer. The print is often speckled and dirty, though never to distraction. If anything, the print flaws only increase the film's personal, handmade feel. Per Kino's usual sub-standards, combing is prevalent throughout. Audio, which is serviceable, is in the original Persian with optional English subtitles.
Very little in the way of supplementary material: Kino's theatrical trailer for Iron Island and a 15-picture stills gallery of scenes from the film.
One of the great works of Iranian cinema.