The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood is an early feature by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Screened only once in its entirety, in 1990, it has been miraculously salvaged from the Iranian censors, who first heavily cut it and then banned it outright. Having come into possession of one of the heavily cut copies of his films, which runs at little over sixty minutes, Makhmalbaf, who has been living in exile in London for many years, decided to release it. This version was first screened at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, where it opened the Venice Classics section.
Even in this heavily edited version, The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood is very powerful. Though its oniric pacing is nightmarishly expressive, the film can be brutal in a very direct way. Set before, during, and after the Iranian revolution, which culminated in the replacement of Iranian monarchy with an Islamic republic regime supported by various leftist and Islamist organizations, The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood follows the lives of a professor of anthropology, Mohammad Alaghemand (Manouchehr Esmaili), and his daughter, Sayeh (Mojgan Naderi). The professor holds controversial views on power and is vocal about his beliefs that the Persian people should be led by a strong monarchy, therefore opposing the Islamist revolutionaries. His behaviour is sometimes reckless and constantly lands him in a heap of trouble. In one stand-out sequence, he is kidnapped by mysterious authorities, blindfolded, and taken to a room where he is interrogated by a voice. When at last he takes off his blindfold, he sees that the voice belonged to no one, which refers to a Kafkaesque type of representation of authority.
This type of narrative experimentation is even more evident in the film’s use of the element of suicide. Sayeh works as a psychologist in a centre for people who attempt suicide. The motivations for these suicide attempts remain varied before, during, and after the revolution, but circumstances will lead Sayeh to give up trying to “save” those who want to take their own lives, understanding that sometimes suicide is the only necessary solution for gaining attention. In many ways, by standing up to the powerful revolutionaries, may be seen as suicidal, and in coming to this realization Sayeh at last also understands something very important about her own father. Not to mention that this realization fits in well with the more general driving theme of The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood, which has been described by Makhmalbaf as a film depicting the gradual suicide of an entire people.
Makhmalbaf’s experimentation neither begins nor ends with its textual narrative and poetic allegories. The film is edited in an oniric way (Makhmalbaf also edited the film), lending the feature a nightmarish atmosphere and charged with surrealist potential. It is interesting to note how this atmosphere is paradoxically enhanced by the heavy cuts and censorships. Some sequences are unaccompanied by dialogue or sounds. These sequences, often depicting characters discussing matters of politics and culture, remain silent. They, for example, enhance the possibility of interacting with an audience who may have otherwise been lost in a sea of wordy rhetoric. In any case, Makhmalbaf is known for, among other things, his confident and expressive use of the language of cinema. Camera movements and angles are able to communicate their message even without resorting to the use of dialogue. It was perhaps upon this realization that the Iranian censors decided that cutting the film was not enough and that they should do their best to wipe it off the face of the planet instead.
Certainly, the way in which The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood is shot is only partially what makes it so powerful: it is also what it shoots that is important. The transitional period of Iran is represented by subtle but noticeable changes. They are most noticeable in the depiction of women: not only, for instance, are they obliged to start wearing veils; they also begin to disappear from the professor’s classes, initially mixed, and then, by the end, all-male. This clear sign of female repression and proliferation of patriarchal system values welcomed and encouraged by the Shah’s regime is also a clear representation of a general repression of freedom. Finally, this repression of freedom is represented by the film itself, as an object, or artifact, attacked, mutilated, and then blocked by the censors. The fact that The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood is still so powerful and, by all means, essential viewing, speaks greatly in its favour but also about the power of cinema in general. – ★★★★★
SHABHAYE ZAYANDEH-ROOD | 1990, Iran | Drama | Directed by – Mohsen Makhmalbaf / Written by – Mohsen Makhmalbaf / Cinematography by – Ali Reza Zarrindast / Edited by – Mohsen Makhmalbaf / Starring – Manuchehr Esmaili, Mojgan Naderi, Parvaneh Goharani, Zaynab Rahdari, Mehrdad Farid, Homayoon Mokammaei | Running time: 65 mins.