Screens at CIFF: 10/17 & 10/20 & 10/21
World premiere: 26 September, 2012, San Sebastian International Film Festival

If you look at at the normal sources - IMDb, Wikipedia - you'll find (at least as of this writing) that Rhino Season is described as an Iranian film, which is an incredibly, specifically wrong statement. Rhino Season was made on Turkish money by Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurdish filmmaker who is, in point of fact, forbidden from making movies in Iran right now, on account of the ones he's made so far being unfriendly to that country's government. His newest outdoes all the rest, though: it is, in its elliptical and poetically abstract and a times downright inscrutable way, a savage broadside against a country that would, for extremely nebulous reasons, imprison a man for three decades for making "subversive" art, and tell everyone who ever knew him that he is dead, thus making his eventual release not so much an emergence into freedom as a descent into an indescribable hell in which he no longer has even the ratty vestige of an identity to cling to. In other words, beneath some of 2012's most breathtakingly gorgeous images, we have here a feature-length "FUCK YOU IRAN" bellowed at the top of Ghobadi's pointedly obscure voice.

Based on the true story of a man Ghobadi knew, but under a different name and with enough details changed that it cannot rightfully be called a biopic, Rhino Season tells, under quite a layer of obfuscation, an awfully straightforward story: Sahel (Behrouz Vossoughi) is a poet who was imprisoned in the early 1980s for his work, and is released to find everything he knew destroyed; able to find out through illicit channels that his wife (Monica Bellucci, perfect in a small but daunting part) now lives in Turkey, he finds a way into that country, and while driving around - stalking her, in essence - he more or less accidentally turns into the preferred chauffeur for an upbeat pair of prostitutes. A terrible, and rather irritatingly overdetermined, tragedy brings things to their inevitably dark conclusion; and if parts of the concluding sequence feel a little miserable for misery's sake, I suppose the argument could be advanced that Ghobadi is pointing out, in a very unsubtle way, how badly the arbitrary imprisonment of political undesirables can destroy the very fabric of decency and dignity, by tearing such huge holes in those quantities, but the twist still feels trashy in a way that nothing else in the movie ever does.

That, anyway, is the plot. But Rhino Season is not about the plot, but about the emotions stirred up in its protagonist as he moves through that plot, and remembers his unrelievedly nightmarish treatment in Iranian prisons (where he is played, as a younger man, by Caner Cindoruk). And this brings us to the most salient point about the movie, and certainly the point likeliest to lose even those on board with the singularly personal rhythms of Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly - films implicitly referenced in Rhino Season - this is a film about a poet; a film, moreover, about a poet trying to deal with a complex, insoluble emotional situation in the only way he can, through poetry; a film, therefore, about how mental states are suggested through poetic imagery rather than dramatic incident (so undramatic is the film in fact, that Vessoughi, a legend who came out of retirement for the part, speaks barely a single word; this should not and in fact does not mean that his performance is less than a spectacular masterpiece of implication and tiny gestures with deep meanings, all on its own).

Rhino Season is a movie packed full of imagery with obvious symbolism, imagery with opaque symbolism, imagery that doesn't appear to be symbolic at all; my notes on the film consist of almost nothing but hastily, enthusiastically scrawled one-line descriptions of each new jaw-droppingly beautiful shot. But reducing the film to a collection of symbols cheapens it; what matters more, I think, is the feeling those symbols engender. Poetry, after all, is a form of literature devoted to finding the way to express the most meaning with the fewest words, and it's for that reason that it's a heavily symbol-driven genre, not because of some desire to make literary editorial cartoons. So it is with Rhino Season, in which the point of images is not what they "mean", but what they express: how, in the context of all the images on either side, the tell us what Sahel is feeling in the moment, and presumably making us feel the same (I say "presumably" as a hedge; I fell under the movie's spell completely, and almost from the first minutes, but this is destined to be the kind of movie that many people, even in its nominal target audience, will find indulgent and empty). Movies that "do poetry" using imagery aren't new, of course, though they are somewhat rare; and anyway, Rhino Season is an especially strong example of the form.

This is a film very unlike anything else Ghobadi has made, and while it is not as awe-inspiringly perfect as, say, A Time for Drunken Horses, it is unquestionably the work of a great talent marshaling all of his powers as a cinematic storyteller. The editing - especially the use of dissolves - and the audio of poetry being spoken over the imagery (not necessarily imagery that "matches" it, either), and the compact, thoughtful compositions, all tie together in a way that could exist in no other medium, and even in this medium come together in such a way only very infrequently. It's clearly not to everyone's taste - anyway, what can be more subjective than poetry? - but to me, this is cinema in its purest form, one of those films that makes one truly grateful for the experience of watching it.