An image of the hapless Ibrahim (Ali Ebdail), tracking and panhandling through the car-crowded streets of Tehran, opens Nader T. Homayoun’s Tehroun, a pointed, sometimes tender and elusive anti-tribute to a city of wanderers straddling the fences of social divide. But the film, Homayoun’s first feature, is too mindful of the social complications of this city—too respectful and appreciative of the nuances of its characters—to play like a series of sociological exposes propagated from the armchair. As the opening images of Ibrahmin—carrying an embezzled, wide-eyed child in his efforts to win the sympathy (and pocket money) of strangers—potentially suggest, Tehroun is a film less interested in nullifying the dynamic, protean features of its characters than in seeing what happens when they interact, in charting their exchanges and slights of hand with persuasive emotional appeal.
Ibrahim, a desperate, newly initiated participant in Tehran’s child-trafficking and money-embezzling underworld, is jeopardized after his impostor-son is ram-sacked and purportedly sold away by an unsuspecting young prostitute. The film’s remaining 90 minutes give Homayoun and his cast of nonprofessional actors an opportunity to move through this underworld, to take a look at what happens when the child-that-got-away creates room for all kinds of very palpable, very messy feelings and dispositions. In this respect, like Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (and, perhaps much less so, that film’s precursor, Antonioni’s L’Avventura), Tehroun is curious about how people respond to events of presumed narrative significance; the disappearance of that wide-eyed child is the moment when Homayoun’s film gets going, and not necessarily because it gives his characters their motivation to do something, to reach a goal (that is, to find the boy), but more importantly, because it allows his film to direct a sharp, sensitive eye onto their milieu, to help extend and amplify the features of their emotional life in ways that transform the kidnapping into an important thematic pretext.
But the texture and surface of this film—its hand-held cinematography, the pulp and clamminess of its images, it roughness and speed—is far removed from the visual speciousness of Antonioni and Martel. And once Tehroun is considered stylistically, one feels disappointed by the way it forestalls or refuses to participate in more aggressively realizing its aesthetic possibilities. If we’re going to make comparisons, one has the impression that Homayoun wants to share the Earthbound and deeply sympathetic stylistic program of the Italian neorealists, though theirs was a cinema that treated style as an articulation of moral feelings, as a way of clearly and boldly developing a voice. Despite their persuasiveness and humanity, the voices in Tehroun (and there are many) leave residue; the impression we have is of a lurking, under-explored territory, one that requires not only a strong set of voices, but also a more unified, less ambivalent voice coming from behind the camera. That voice belongs to its director.