Almost 30 years ago, a film by the great director Amir Naderi was shown for the first time in Iran.
Recently I was lucky enough to be in the audience in Tehran to see his latest masterpiece, Monte (in English, Mountain).
This joint Italian-French-American production was on-screen for a few days at the Art and Experience Cinematic Group theater (nearly a full year after it premiered in Europe!). Monte features the Italian actor Andrea Sartoretti, whose credits include the TV series Crime Novel and Mission: Impossible III, and Claudia Potenza, who starred in Basilicata Coast to Coast.
It tells the story of a poor farming family in 14th-century Italy whose land lies deep in the shadow of a mountain.
Directed by Naderi and co-written by Donatello Fumarola, the theme is an ancient one: the ultimate triumph of light – and enlightenment – over darkness and ignorance. With minimal dialogue and powerful images, this film works as a political parable with particular relevance to Iran’s theocracy.
The main characters – a father, mother and teenage son – are barely scraping out a living on their farm high in the Italian alpine foothills. Nothing much grows because the land and nearby derelict village lie deep in permanent shadow. Many people have drifted away to avoid starvation. Darkness, both physical and spiritual, prevails.
(In interviews, Ameri admits he put his film crew through hell on location — long days, violent weather and terrible food — to build empathy with his fictional characters.)
Rather than recognizing that their problems lie in the way the mountain blocks the sun, local people blame their hardships on a curse.
The father of the family, desperate to raise some money, goes to market to sell one of the last valuable objects they possess, his wife’s hair clip. But the brutish local people, unwilling to believe a poor farmer would own such a thing, accuse him of theft and have him arrested.
It is when he escapes that the father has an epiphany, and resolves to tackle the base of everyone’s misery – the mountain itself.
His Herculean struggle to hack away tons of rock is gorgeously shot and agonizing to watch. The family’s commitment is epic. They re-order their roles to cope. The woman even transforms herself from farmer’s wife into a hunter-gatherer to keep everyone fed.
Predictably, there is fierce resistance from the villagers. Drawing a not-so-subtle parallel between religion and superstition, Ameri shows nuns muttering what could be prayers – or spells – to halt the coming of the light.
(It struck me that this kind of mumbled cant is a universal human ritual – whether in Latin for Catholic prayers, Arabic for Muslim ones or old Slavonic for Russian Orthodox ones – or in the political rhetoric of totalitarian monsters like Lenin, Stalin or Mao.)
The local authorities – clad in armor, heavy-handed, fat and out of breath — show up next. They are a caricature of plodding, ignorant militias everywhere who labor in the service of tyrants. These men arrest all three family members, but they escape and go right back to hacking away at the mountain.
At last, all the back-breaking labor pays off and the sun bursts through.
This scene too is gloriously filmed. For that moment, the light is the star of the show. It reminded me of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” with its poor gnarled peasants revealed in the lamplight.
Monte is an allegory, which will mean different things to different people.
Hats off to the director, Ameri, who left Iran at the zenith of his popularity at home and went on to speak to the world in the language of film. His message — innovation is hard work; anyone who sets out to re-shape the world will suffer; defeating ignorance and despotism requires perseverance and courage.
But it is life’s noblest purpose.