No Bears movie review: Jafar Panahi’s urgent take on Iran’s culture wars

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In this topical and typically slippery comedy drama from prize-winning writer-director, Jafar Panahi, Iran is no country for women. It’s a scary place, too, for rule-flouting men. Quietly and quirkily, the 62-year-old filmmaker focuses on the culture wars dividing the nation. By the end, you’ll be in smithereens.

The real Panahi is in serious trouble - this July, he was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison, though he’s been viewed as an enemy of the state since at least 2010. It’s that version of himself that we see here. Filmmaker “Panahi” (all crumpled T-shirts and pasty jowls) is holed up in a village near the Turkish border. He’s banned from making movies, but has found a way to keep working. With the help of a proxy, Panahi directs a movie that’s shot in Turkey, but is all about Iran. And he does it via Skype.

The plot of “Panahi’s” naturalistic, semi-documentary film revolves around clenched actress-waitress, Zara (Mina Khosravani, who is blistering), and her hang-dog boyfriend, Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei). The couple have endured years of abuse because of their activism. The plan is to escape to France with fake passports.

Meanwhile, in the village, “Panahi” finds himself besieged by villagers, who seem to think he’s up to no good. They’re also convinced he has photographic proof that a local girl, Gozal (Darya Alei), has been cheating on Jacob (Javad Siyahi), the fiancé she was promised to at birth.

Is there an incriminating photo? And what of the titular bears? (Tourists are told the village is surrounded by man-eating beasts). Even more importantly, is Bakhtiar faking his guilty expression or is he really hiding something from Zara? As tension builds, the questions pile up.

The script and performances are full of humour. Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri), our hero’s obsequious, middle-aged landlord, is delighted when “Panahi” asks him to film a traditional engagement ceremony. Ghanbar has never handled a film camera before and his friends keep greeting him with the words, “You’ve replaced the pick and shovel with the camera!”

Later, Ghanbar sits on the floor as the rushes are inspected. He keeps muttering, “I ruined it”, but can’t stop beaming. He could be any acolyte, eager to be patted on the head by a mentor. Panahi’s not laughing at this obliging man. He’s critiquing a world in which people, starved of compliments and affirmation, are so willing to bow to authority. The footage, by the way, is priceless, with a groom, plonked on a rock, the very picture of despair.

It’s crucial that none of the villagers seem evil. Even Jacob, the handsome, sulky fiancé, has a speech that makes us think twice. It’s also telling when the elders ask “Panahi” to speak in Azari (their language). The film-maker replies that he’d prefer to stick to Farsi; he only uses Azari when chatting to his mum. Class and regional divides abound; no wonder it’s so hard for different tribes to understand one another.

Panahi covered similar ground in This Is Not a Film, Taxi and 3 Faces, but No Bears has an urgency all of its own. In a key scene, Bakhtiar is close to getting a new passport from a people smuggler, when the latter demands the cameras stop filming the transaction. Says the faceless entrepreneur: “The man with the camera should stop.”

Panahi, these days, is rarely holding the camera. But, as his enemies may have noticed by now, filming is what he does. No Bears, amongst other things, is a statement of intent. While he has breath in his body, he won’t stop.

106mins, cert 12A

In cinemas