“The Arabs are coming!” wrote critics — some not even Middle Eastern — from Cannes in 2002, intoxicated by the rash of good films from the region and the success of Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention. In 2003, the enthusiasm was muted, although Moroccan first-timer Faouzi Bensaidi’s One Thousand Months gave even the cynics something to celebrate. But at Cannes Film Festival 2004, alas, even the most enthused critics had to admit that it was now the Asians, rather than the Middle Easterners, who were having their day. Iran, the darling of the arthouse circuit, only had a couple of films competing — although they did include Mohsen Amiryoussefi’s fantastically quirky Khab E Talkh (Bitter Dream). (Out of competition, Kiarostami’s Five left gallery directors salivating, but most film critics slightly bewildered, a fact not aided by the straight-talking veteran auteur’s repeated assertions that his film was “about nothing” and in no way an art installation.)
Thirty-two-year-old Mohsen Amiryoussefi’s first feature is a black comedy set in a cemetery in Sedeh, near Esfahan. Starring its real-life employees, the picture tells the tale of Esfandiar, a cantankerous body-washer who comes face to face with Ezrael (the Angel of Death). With his life flashing before his eyes — often, surreally, through his beloved black-and-white television — Esfandiar is forced to reconsider his behavior. Wonderfully underplayed, with a good dose of gallows humor, Bitter Dream was awarded a Camera d’Or Special Mention.