Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/17 & 10/19
World premiere: 7 September, 2014, Toronto International Film Festival

Movies about ideas are wonderful things; movies that are "About Ideas" to the point where they start to disappear inside their own ass are much less so. And the French-made Iranian film Red Rose (that is, the crew and creative team are Iranian, but it was too politically charged to be made in that country) lives right on the knife's edge that separates satisfying conceptual filmmaking from tedious wankery. It wants very much for its character drama between a middle-aged former activist and a twentysomething protester and Twitter warrior, who end up having sex with potentially sinister overtones, to be all at once a story of two people attempting to make any kind of connection with humanity at large, to flaunt religious moral convention by presenting a sexually bold and provocative film, and to metaphorically explore how the generation that couldn't save the world last time and the generation that's probably not going to save the world this time interact with each other. All while the protests following the hopelessly corrupt and compromised 2009 elections in Iran serve as both the background and the main theme of the film.

One out of three is… dubiously impressive. As hard as it tries, Red Rose has a very hard time balancing its protagonists' identities as a worn-out old guy, Ali (Vassilis Koukalani), wary of ever leaving his apartment for fear of the state, and bubbly Sara (Mina Kavani), sexually open and eager to fix the world, with their roles as Emblem of the Failures of the 1979 Revolution and Symbol of Youthful Exuberance Untainted by Wisdom and Experience, and also How Technology Changes Things. And by "has a hard time", I mean that it doesn't; at a certain point, and it comes awfully early, one gets the impression that director/writer Sepideh Farsi and co-writer Javad Djavahery have quietly given up hope that their story will ever exist at a level beyond symbolism. Or maybe they never intended for it to leave that level, and the intimations in the early going that it might also work as a simple but intelligent character study are simply accidental byproducts of putting generational forces into human bodies.

Whatever the case, the film ends up a curiously frustrating affair, in which virtually everything happening around the edges is terrific, interesting cinema, while the main bulk of it is frankly tedious political cartooning too obsessed with Saying Something with every new shot to have any soul to speak of. The good stuff is keen, nuanced character material, or sharp depictions of the way that people who define themselves in terms of their politics can lapse into self-loathing or braggadocio, sometimes simultaneously, or simply nice little beats of acting and character creation, in which the performers (Kavani especially) simply let the characters breathe. And there's a lot of that, all through the whole running time of the movie (which, at only 80 minutes, is thankfully free of extraneous fat).

The more overtly symbolic approach to the material can't really be called "bad", since it's obviously what the film wanted to do, and I get the impression that this turned out more or less exactly the way Farsi had in mind. But it's awfully dry, regardless. The film is so openly aware of its Importance in how it Engages With Culture that it can be awfully tedious to watch it.

That being said, when Farsi and company calm down and let the movie be the movie, it's awfully wonderful. Kavani and Koukalani are both fascinating to watch, and their chemistry just strained enough for it to be clear that these aren't any kind of soulmates, just two people, each with their own baggage, who end up in a complex and thorny emotional situation. Unlike a lot of films that foreground their rulebreaking depiction of sex, Red Rose always makes it clear that the sex is part of the characters' development, and not just an end to itself - not simply 'let's depict sex as a political act!" in the aggressive and somewhat juvenile way that it was deployed back in the '60s, say. Though of course that subtext is very much present. Let's not downplay it: Red Rose is a film that depicts people, events, and actions that don't get a lot of screentime, and that is the thing it cares about the most. And it matters: pinning down a particular historical moment that, just five years later, has been almost completely forgotten in the West is a terrifically important thing, and between telling its human story as impacted by the protests, and collecting footage from 2009, Red Rose is as important a document as it is a dramatic fiction.

That said, fictions cannot live on importance alone, and I wish the film was a little less stuffy, and didn't feel compelled to weight every narrative beat with social significance (it pays off in the blunt, unexpected ending, but that's at least somewhat too little, too late). There's a beautiful two-hander sitting right there, given just a tiny bit less room and freedom to develop independently of the background narrative to feel like anything other than a pretext. There's a whole lot in Red Rose that's interesting and well-done - if just for her skill in portraying the inside of a single apartment with kinetic, varied imagery that prevents it from ever feeling claustrophobic or static to the viewer, Farsi deserves all the praise in the world - and I left the film feeling pretty good about what had just happened. But pretty good isn't great, and it's frustrating to see Red Rose do so much to limit itself to being just an editorial, at the expense of its drama.