Mohammad Rasoulof’s recent arrest in his native Iran alongside collaborator Jafar Panahi (Rasoulof was released; Panahi remains behind bars) raises issues cannily reflected by the Iron Island director’s latest, The White Meadows. A gorgeously wrought fable trading in subtle, if nonetheless unmistakable, social commentary, Rasoulof’s film employs indigenous folklore for a poignant critique of oppression and the sorrow it spawns, following middle-aged Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) as he travels to remote islands collecting the tears of the grief-stricken. Each of Rahmat’s destinations are inhospitable places intrinsically related to the misery of their inhabitants, as the waterworks collected by Rahmat in a small glass pitcher bear the same brand of pungent saline found in these landscapes’ expansive white salt flats. Rasoulof presents a world awash in briny sadness, save for Rahmat, whose duty is carried out with a quiet, nonjudgmental dignity. Yet no mere silent witness to unhappiness, Rahmat—who, during the course of his odyssey, is joined by a young boy and a blind man—seemingly views his task as a therapeutic calling, amassing his countrymen’s tears in a glass bottle as a means of providing absolution for the dead, as well as a small measure of healing for the mournful.
Empathy courses through The White Meadows as Rahmat performs his ritual, the film focused on the nobility and grace of selfless compassion. In the face of Pourshirazi, whose voice is only sporadically heard but whose eyes loudly express how deeply he shares his compatriots’ sorrowful burden, Rasoulof ably conveys how misery born from injustice is not only felt by those directly affected, but is shared among all. Injustice is certainly ever-present in each of Rahmat’s episodic missions. At his first stop, for the funeral of a young girl, a man remarks to Rahmat that her death was likely for the best, since the way her body moved under her burka spelled trouble for the area’s men. An example of underlying cultural sexism begetting tragedy, this strain of prejudice is mirrored by Rahmat’s attendance at a virgin sacrifice intended to court favor with gods who’ve denied the region rainwater, a scenario that culminates with the heart-wrenching sight of elder gentlemen showering the bereaved mother with congratulations for her daughter’s noble death. And later, when Rahmat visits an artist buried to his neck in sand for painting the sea red (an act of dissident artistic independence), a highly personal metaphor for Iran’s crackdown on nonconformist creative spirits proves unmistakable.
To his film’s betterment, Rasoulof doesn’t press these metaphors to the point of didacticism, instead allowing them to spring forth from a muted atmosphere of absurdist melancholy. Refusing to wholly explain why Rahmat performs his duty (only that he’s been at it for 30 years), The White Meadows more clearly fixates on the act of ritual as both an uplifting and destructive force that governs human behavior. Ceremonies are clung to with a devoutness divorced from reason, and in close-ups of Rahmat’s hands preparing his glass tools-of-the-trade, or of feet being washed in a basin, Rasoulof roots his free-flowing parable in tangible action. As customary deeds are carried out, a potent sense of tactility emerges, at once locating the reality of the various scenarios—an endeavor also aided by panoramas of rocky, scraggly environments dotted with stalactites and pockmarked with caves—as well as contributing to an overarching atmosphere of beguiling spirituality.
Each island copes with grief in different ways, their methods defined by a mixture of anguish and bizarreness, as when the insubordinate artist is treated with eye drops of monkey urine, or a community’s population speaks its sorrows into jars which are strung around the body of a six-fingered dwarf, who takes them down into a well to appease an angry fairy. Even when the evils responsible for such misery are readily apparent, the writer-director maintains a light touch, his haunting imagery in touch with the ethereal and otherworldly. Tableaus of majesty and misery abound, from vistas in which the sea seems to be a virtual sky hovering above colorless beaches, to a prolonged shot of a girl being pulled on her matrimonial bed through the smoke emanating from pans of fire floating on the ocean’s surface. Throughout, Iranian ills are movingly condemned, but it’s The White Meadows’s more general, humanistic portrait of man’s multifaceted nature that truly inspires, its social critique ultimately enhanced by its recognition of the fallibility, irrationality and inscrutability of people’s hearts and minds.
The White Meadows will play on April 23, 26, 27, and May 1 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.