Screens at CIFF: 10/16 & 10/17 & 10/20

One of the beautiful things about internationally-minded film festivals is that provide a window into unfamiliar cultures, by bringing to one's attention the smaller sort of foreign film than the kind likely to get a widespread international release; and in so doing, reveal that the prestigious art films that are most country's primary export are just part of a wide array of movies made in that country. For example: did you know that Iran, the native country of modern masters like the formally daring Abbas Kiarostami, the politically dangerous Jafar Panahi, and the challenging storyteller Asghar Farhadi, among other greats, also made cutesy, insubstantial relationship comedies? Because I surely did not know that, and was sort of amazed to learn it in the form of Meeting Leila, the feature debut of director Adel Yaraghi, a habituΓ© of Kiarostami's filmmaking workshops.

More than just that, Meeting Leila was inspired by a story that Kiaorstami, in the midst of giving up cigarettes, told the younger man, and the screenplay was written in collaboration between the two of them. And that proves to be more amazing still than the bare fact of an Iranian relationship comedy: that someone as well-known for his monumentally complex films as Abbas Kiarostami could have taken an active creative role in the production of such a comedy. Which means, presumably, we can thus read this as a companion piece to Certified Copy, and end up being even more disappointed by how emphatically much it isn't that.

Meeting Leila it may be called, but Leila is met by the end of the film's opening sequence, in which a man called Nader (played by Yaraghi himself) is running an errand in a really bad snowstorm (another thing film festivals teach us: there are heavy snowfalls in Iran), when he gets stopped by a stalled car right in the middle of his path; that car, of course, is being driven - or not being driven, more to the point - by Leila (Leila Hatami), who gratefully accepts Nader's offer to help...

...and the next time we see them, it's just a couple of days before their wedding, a gigantic narrative ellipsis that I actually rather respect; it focuses our attention on the part of the movie that actually matters, how they relate to one another as an established couple, whose various foibles have gone from being comic traits and become actual issues to be tolerated, ignored, or challenged. Meeting Leila is chiefly about a foible that is being challenged.

The movie tells us in the first scene that Nader is a smoker - in the first image, even, given that the most obvious object in the opening shot is a pack of American cigarettes with the U.S. Surgeon General's warning prominently facing right at the camera. So it's no surprise when the movie's conflict ends up revolving almost entirely around his smoking habit: a habit that Leila desperately wants him to give up. Which he wants to do, both because it's unhealthy, and because he wants to prove that he loves Leila so much that he will make a good faith effort to contribute to their relationship; the problem is, Nader is an advertising "idea man", and he needs the centering, relaxed feeling that comes from a cigarette in order to come up with his best ideas; given the one idea we hear him pitch when he doesn't have nicotine in his system, he's not exaggerating when he frets that his career is on the line if he quits smoking.

That pretty much does it for the conflict: what it doesn't point out is how much of the film is nothing but scenes of Nader talking about how much he likes smoking, how much he misses smoking, or indulging in weird smoker's humor with the various people he smokes with. It's a smoke-heavy movie, for sure, and while it might have been inspired by Kiarostami's attempts to kick the habit, Yaraghi doesn't editorialise one way or the other. Instead, he's content to use smoking as a convenient symbol for the turf wars in any long-term romantic relationship, using it as a way to dramatise Nader's commitment or lack thereof to bettering himself in order to start his marriage off on the right foot.

And that's fine, I guess; it's a sturdy, workaday theme presented without much distinction in this particular instance, mostly because Yaraghi is a fine but unexceptional actor, and Hatami's total domination of every one of her scenes (as last seen in A Separation) doesn't help to make us find Nader any more interesting, and given how much time Hatami is offscreen, the film frequently turns into a game of waiting for her to show back up.

On the other hand, however slight the project is, it possesses a nice, simple sense of humor and never takes itself too seriously; there is a specific comic setpiece, in which Nader furiously storms back and forth through a store filled with fragile knickknacks, always just managing not to break anything, and impatiently shooing the salespeople trying to keep him away from the displays, that's as funny as anything in recent memory, perfectly played and filmed. If Yaraghi wants to do more than lightly entertain us with a film full of basic observations, he fails; but it doesn't really seem like he wants that.

A final note: shot on digital video, the film looks beastly (it appears that it was being projected at 30 fps, at least when I saw it - maybe this is a local problem), and it is the best argument I've seen all year for giving up on cinematography in the digital age. This trumps my bitter film-loving cinephilia: the film looks bad enough that I think it would distract anybody, even if they couldn't pinpoint why. Caveat emptor.