Whatever isn’t conveyed about Frontier Blues by its title is dealt with in the film’s 30 minutes. Director Babak Jalali exhibits assured command in crafting his portrait of four citizens of the Northern Iranian province of Golestan, interconnecting the stories of his protagonists in ways that never feel contrived or excessively strain to underline their significance. Rather, he employs fixed-camera shots and the sporadic strain of melancholy strings to aesthetically emphasize what his sparsely scripted tale depicts—namely, that life in this remote region of the world (which borders Turkmenistan, and is the director’s birthplace) breeds loneliness and longing, often created by loss.
While being photographed for a forthcoming book by a Tehran artist, the Minstrel (Khajeh Araz Dordi)—accompanied, always, by a cadre of four young followers—recounts how his wife was stolen from him 30 years earlier by a sheepherder in a green Mercedes Benz. His vain attempts to locate her bred a misery akin to that felt by Alam (Mahmoud Kalteh), a Turkmen chicken farmer planning to move to a nearby town with, he hopes, an Iranian woman for whom he silently pines. The cast of characters is rounded out by mentally challenged Hassan (Abolfazl Karimi), who was abandoned by his mother and now travels everywhere with his pet donkey, and Hassan’s uncle (Behzad Shahrivari), whose clothing store is stocked with items too big for its customers. These isolated, discontented figures are all mired in mundane lives defined by go-nowhere circularity, a notion expressed explicitly via matching shots of Alam and Hassan’s uncle staring at a rickety rotating ceiling fan, and implicitly through director Jalali’s day-in-day-out narrative and recurring use of the same locations and images.
If never very funny despite its air of droll stasis, Frontier Blues conveys its particular sense of place and human condition thoroughly. Yet it also does so at such an early stage in its 95-minute runtime that the final hour-plus, in which Alam aims to win his bride and the Minstrel loses patience with having his picture taken, is spent merely repeating points about personal, cultural, and geographic isolation that have been convincingly made already, leaving the final film feeling less like a fleshed-out whole than a short unreasonably expanded to feature-length.