Atabai (2020)

Atabai by Iranian director Niki Karimi makes the most of stupendous landscapes and reveals its stories gradually.

Secrets and Lies

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Atabai illustrates how Iranian films competing at international festivals by acclaimed directors such as Panahi and Makbalbaf may subliminally cater to Western tastes. Directed and co-scripted by former actress Niki Karimi, in Atabai we have an inkling of the cultural context that we may fail to understand, or simply miss, as a Western viewer.

Atabai is set amid unchanged, traditional rural life in remote northwest Iran. It’s beautifully shot amid glorious scenery – the mountains, deserts and agriculture – so much so that the stupendous landscape becomes part of this film’s story. This area is so close to the Turkish border that one of the languages spoken in the film is Turkish Azari– though the distinction of who speaks Azari or Farsi is lost in English subtitles.

Atabai means ‘great man’ in Azari. That’s partly ironic – the central character, Kazam, is called that in the village because he has status as a professional, but feels his life is a failure. Middle-aged Kazem (co-screenwriter Hadi Hejazifar), symbolically an architect, a builder of the future, returns to his village after years working in Thailand. He discovers that in his absence his family’s orchard has been sold to an outsider, Tehran businessman Shirazi, by his brother-in-law Parviz, who has left the village: his elderly father (Yoosefali Daryadel) smokes opium.

Atabai is still scarred by an unsuccessful love affair as a student years ago and by his sister’s suicide. She was forced by his father to marry Parviz when she was only 15 and tragically committed suicide by setting fire to herself.

Atabai feels responsible for her son, his nephew, Aydin (Danial Noroush), a personable young man hoping to go to university. Centrally, Atabai has significant conversations with his childhood friend, widower Yayha (Javad Ezati), in which they both confess lifelong untold secrets.

It’s hard to engage with an alienated central character like Atabai – we hear his thoughts in voiceover but sometimes the context is unrelatable. What is noticeably missing in the film until right at the end are any women, who seem to have no public existence in a male-oriented society.

Atabai seems to be inspired by complicated personal events: politically it may symbolise an Iran where a returnee feels like an outsider and the country’s patrimony has already been sold. The first two-thirds of the film seem to have been heavily cut and seem disconnected and unclear. The white-on-white subtitles don’t help. In the final third that the plot focuses on Atabai’s possible reconciliation to a flawed future through the imagined potential of a love relationship with damaged Sima (Sahar Dolatshahi), Shirazi’s daughter.

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