Balancing earthy humor and scarring tragedy, Bahman Ghobadi’s portraits of Kurdish wanderers are particularly expressive of Iranian cinema’s sense of hope within instability. Ghobadi’s previous film, Turtles Can Fly, envisioned the fall of Saddam Hussein not as deliverance but as a new loop in a cycle of chaos. Half Moon plays out in the same battered terrain and touches on several of its concerns—the arriving U.S. forces seen at the end of Turtles are here said to be “shooting at anything that moves”—yet its musical intimations and detours into magical realism bring it closer to the filmmaker’s similarly striking Marooned in Iraq.
Having finally attained permission for a farewell concert in Iran, elderly Kurdish singer Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari) drafts his 10 sons for the journey across the border. Huddled inside a loaned bus driven by rowdy cockfight arranger Kako (Allah Morad Rashtiani), the musicians craft a feeling of community viewed by Ghobadi as simultaneously vital, fragile (there’s always a son ready to run away), and in its absence of women, ultimately incomplete. The latter issue is addressed with a stopover at the village of banished female singers where Mamo meets Hesho (Hedieh Tehrani), the aging muse who has to be smuggled into the country so that her “celestial voice” can grace the concert.
Half Moon displays both a sharpening of Ghobadi’s filmmaking (his use of landscapes for both wry absurdism and somber reflection is especially assured) and, somewhat more problematically, an intensification of his penchant for the fantastic. The film’s increasing forays into mysticism culminate with the appearance of the titular character (Golshifteh Farahani), a beautiful young woman who literally drops out of the sky just as Mamo’s odyssey hits a dead end. Part heavenly envoy and part angel of death, she’s a sketchy conceit that nevertheless provides a moment worthy of Kusturica when her singing briefly breathes life back into a body about to be laid into the ground. Such flourishes prove redundant, however, in a film that at its most earthbound already poetically articulates the need to keep Kurdish tradition from falling into the grave of cultural crisis.