Review of “Bitter Dream” (Khab E Talkh) By Peter Brunette

Thelow-budget Iranian film Bitter Dream is a study of the meaning of lifeand death that is infinitely more far-reaching than it initially appears.

Writtenand directed by first-time film-maker Mohsen Amiryoussefi, a self-confessedBrechtian, the film unfolds as a series of loosely connected, intenselyself-reflective vignettes, which centre on Abbas Esfandiar, a man, who in reallife as in the film, washes corpses in preparation for their last rites.

Thisapparently unpromising premise is rescued by the 32-year-old director’swonderful gallows humour, which enlivens the proceedings every time theythreaten to get too heavy. Still,despite its wit and wisdom, the film’s obsessive tracking of a single idea anda single character may be too demanding for most audiences, and the film’scommercial prospects appear slight. That said, the film should certainly beconsidered by festival programmers looking to add intellectual heft nicelymarried to a scruffy offbeat humour.

Esfandiar,like many of his past customers, one day begins to sense the presence ofEzrael, the Angel of Death. What’s different this time around is that Esfandiarmostly communes with Ezrael through the medium of his old black-and-whitetelevision set, a plot ploy that sets up an infinite series of visualised,dramatic doublings between the real and the imagined. (At one point, thetelevised images show what seem to be Esfandiar’s own funeral.)

Thinkinghe is on the verge of death, he goes to Delbar, his female fellow-bodywasherand neighbour, the grave-digger and official clothes burner to seek forgivenessfor the harsh treatment he has always meted out to them. The result is a seriesof extremely droll scenes that are brilliantly underplayed, especiallyconsidering that all the actors are non-professionals.

Sound,provided by the same engineer who works for Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, iswell-articulated and provides an ongoing flow of delicately wry humour thatcomplements the visuals.

Starklong shots admirably carry the film’s deeper themes. (Amiryoussefi is an expertin the kind of visual deadpan joke that undercuts the more mundane set-up.)

Atone moment, for example, Esfandiar prepares elaborately for the coming of theAngel of Death, by lying flat and gravely still, only to give in to the naggingtemptation of one last fag. In another, Esfandiar is teaching his apprenticehow to wash a dead body when the cadaversuddenly sits up and asks for another 500 tomans if the apprentice is alsogoing to practice on his genital organs.

Somany Iranian films of recent years have focused on children, and it is a reliefto see the other end of the age spectrum represented for a change.

Thedirector said in an interview that, growing up during the Iran-Iraq war, he hasalways felt that Iranian society is more devoted to death than to life. In thisastute, sharply-observed little film, he has found, through humour, a way totake a decisive step in the right direction.