Iranian cinema has a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2009 The White Meadows offered the oppressive, authoritarian culture of contemporary Iran as a warped Gulliver’s Travels through a lifeless salt marsh of islands out of some surreal medieval world. What’s most startling about Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn is its audacity in projecting a portrait of the authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. Opening on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, the film takes a circuitous route to outline the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for a vicious minister, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities of everyday life.
The script is overly complicated, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. I found echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens, but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for this. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). As of now, his passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.
Trapped, also of Iran, is a more conventional thriller that opens with a sense of optimism and possibility, thanks to a groovy theme song from Cat Stevens. Nazanin Bayati is a first-year medical student in need of housing (the dorms are full) and Pegah Ahangarani is a fast-living salesgirl with a spare room and manic-depressive symptoms. It seems headed for psychological drama, an Iranian Single White Female maybe, until Ahangarani is arrested for debt and Bayati and ends up tangled with a gangster loan shark.