The Sydney Film Festival’s insistence on going on so close to Cannes causes situations that almost ensure that great films tipped in at the last moment ‘direct from Cannes’ are the subject of ignore. Subscribers have used up their passes or are not interested in heading off to the outer venues on a thin amount of information. Such was the fate of Mohammad Rasoulof’s magnificent movie A Man of Integrity (Iran), the winner of the Best Film prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and a sure fire certainty to have been better than most of the films in Cannes competition. Yet there it was over at the Randwick Ritz, looking superb on the cinema’s big screens but being eye-balled by what constituted a bare handful of spectators. Maybe ignoring late entries from Cannes and simply leaving them to others might be less insulting when a masterpiece is shown to a desultory crowd
A Man of Integrity is set in Iran’s northern backblocks. Reza is cultivating fish in ponds. He’s there almost in some sort of internal exile. He complained about canteen food provided to the workers and was expelled from his university. But he and his wife have made a life in a small town. Reza has borrowed money to finance his fish farm. His wife is headmistress of a local school. Things go awry over Reza’s debt and that starts the long spiral of the family into a morass of corruption. He’s caught in the grip of something the subtitles refer to as “The Company”, clearly a mafia-type operation which is used to getting its own way. Along the way there are some intriguing aspects of Reza’s lifestyle. The film opens with him involved in some illicit drug production (see later para). Along the way his wife tries to threaten The Company. Also along the way we see Reza partaking of the balm provided by a secret hot spring. It’s his place of refuge but, also at the end, the place of his final breakdown, the moment when he accepts that he himself has been corrupted by the immutable process of looking out for yourself when the threats are overwhelming.
The arcane elements of Iranian law with its emphasis on financial restitution and the all-encompassing loss of face are key elements here and Rasoulof switches the story through these at what constitutes breakneck speed. Try to keep up.
However, some explanation is necessary. As mentioned, there is a strand of story running through the film detailing Reza’s efforts to make something illegal. Whatever the fluid is that he produces from his fish and hides by injecting it into watermelons, it is potent and ultimately a killer substance. But it’s mysterious and full comprehension requires some background. Perhaps in some future time someone might run the film again and provided some more extensive program notes or better still with Rasoulof himself present and we can be let in the secret. Even in a very positive review in Variety the estimable Alissa Simon unfortunately doesn’t grapple at all with this plot line. It’s not easy to absorb and no doubt Alissa wrote her review on the basis of a single viewing.
Pardon this incoherent response to the one great film I saw at SFF 2017. Somebody please, maybe Anne and Amin and their Iranian Film Festival, put it on again. It will be worth every second of another viewing and maybe might attract a bigger crowd than that which belatedly tracked it down at the Randwick Ritz on a wet and dirty Sunday afternoon.