Three actresses from different generations intersect in Three Faces, the latest film from Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Under house arrest since 2010, he has made four films since, all of them displaying his talent for creating art under the most adverse of conditions. While his previous film, Taxi, saw the director stick to a single location — a taxi cab — for the entire duration, Three Faces shows him enjoying a far greater filming freedom.
It starts with iPhone footage taken by Marziyeh (playing herself), as she sends a confessional message to her favourite actress, Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself). She claims that her family will not allow her to join an acting conservatory in Tehran, and the only appropriate measure — she thinks — is to kill herself. After watching the young girl subsequently hang herself, Jafari is naturally upset by the footage. Questions abound: if the girl killed herself, who sent the video message? And is that a secret edit between the girl hanging herself and the phone hitting the ground? Jafari isn’t sure, and leaves the film she is working on to join Panahi (playing himself) on a quest to find the truth. The resultant film has a certain austerity that may put off many viewers, but for those willing to stick through Three Faces‘ measured pace, there are a lot of small pleasures to be found.
Three Faces seems to be intentionally slow, spending a good third of its running time simply getting us to the village. A meta-fictional tale in which characters play themselves creates the feel of watching rolling documentary stock — replete with long takes of the car snaking its way along the dusty Iranian roads, and Panahi on the phone to his mother for what feels like an age. This gives the film a feeling of real life, but it also loses a strong sense of urgency in the process.
Things become more interesting once we start to meet the people in this small rural village. They all seem to be nonprofessional actors, lending the town a feel of authenticity. It has a road so narrow that cars have to follow a complicated honking system to check if other cars are coming the other way, and then must determine who has the right to go first. When asked who made the rules, the locals stress that they did it themselves; without rules there would be chaos. The men go on to say that there are no doctors in the village, and that becoming an actress is a sign of Marziyeh’s empty-headiness. As for her fiancé, he is allowed to come and go from the village as he pleases.
We also meet a bull with golden testicles that has the ability to impregnate tens of heifers. This seems a metaphor for the patriarchy as a whole — it can go around doing what it wants, while the women have to know their place. This is particularly tragic for an elder actress living in the town, who used to be one of the biggest stars around before she was banned from acting by the government. This echoes Panahi’s own predicament, being unable to fully express himself as an artist. His sympathy for restricted lives has now been extended to women in society as a whole. At least as a man, he got a start in the first place. Women have these restrictions their whole lives, no matter what they do.
Panahi is wary of being a male director of women, deliberately asking the question about whether he and others have the right perspective to understand their feelings. This is reflected by the film’s style — in displaying his actresses behind closed doors, he seems to be slyly commenting on how they are portrayed in the media. Despite having a cinema scene full of exceptional quality — with directors as diverse as Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, and Mani Haghighi — Iranian cinema has strict rules about what women can or can’t do on screen. It wasn’t always like this. Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women were depicted dancing in films without being forced to wear headscarfs as they are now. This change is heartbreakingly stressed by the fact we never see the aging actress in the flesh. In lesser hands, this would seem like poor characterisation. In Panahi’s hands, it becomes the ultimate sign of respect. This gesture is quietly affecting, even if it took us a little too long to get there.