Capping an already a stellar year, the Venice competition closed on a soaring note following the Friday premiere of “No Bears,” the latest from the masterful Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The director, of course, was not present; he is currently imprisoned and ordered to serve a six-year sentence.
And if those circumstances would no doubt cast a heavy pall over any film, no matter the subject, the fact that “No Bears” seemingly anticipates that outcome lends the film an additional haunting quality.
So if “No Bears” is a flat-out stunner, that’s not just because of the filmmaker’s current political prisoner status; for one thing, he’s lived with that threat for years. Formally banned from making movies since 2010, Panahi works on the fly, turning his camera on himself in playful exercises that find creative inspiration in the restrictions meant to stifle. That (government-imposed) project has found its most potent expression in this latest film, which is, in so many ways, about the urge to create no matter the personal or moral cost.
Once again, Panahi blurs fact and fiction (though what other choice does he have?), starring as Jafar Panahi, beleaguered Iranian director. Only this figure — let’s call the on-screen persona “Jafar” just to make the distinction — is very much a written character. He’s flawed, impetuous, more than a little vain. And for all the political heartache behind him and to come, Jafar is not some moral beacon; neither his legal troubles nor his implacable will to create are seen as ennobling. Panahi does not let Jafar off the hook.
“No Bears” is a film about the self, made without a hint of self-pity. The narrative finds Jafar directing a film in secret, with the filmmaker working remotely from a rinky-dink mountainside town on one side of the Turkish-Iranian border, and his cast and crew taking his direction on the other.
Even Jafar’s film-within-a-film blurs fact with fiction, as the so-called actors play versions of themselves and the story remakes itself on the fly in accordance with their lives. Those “actors” are also dissidents, with prison time served and torture survived, that have managed to make it out of Iran — only to end up in a not-much-better purgatory over in Turkey. A stolen French passport offers a new avenue of escape, but only for one of them.
If the precise balance of truth and artifice is, in this case, unknowable, that’s just as well. Panahi depicts filmmaking as a never-ending struggle — sometimes against the government, or better judgment or tremendous personal tragedy — just to catch up.
Back in the mountain village where Jafar has holed up, the director is up to no good. Though he spends most of his time locked inside a dingy studio apartment, he’s certainly got the locals talking. Is he a spy? Is he on the run? What’s the big-shot big-city boy doing in a remote, ethnically Azerbaijani, northwestern town? And if it turns out the locals aren’t the only ones asking these questions, you never do see the government officials and human smugglers apparently egging them on.
Panahi leaves a lot of things unseen throughout the film, including an incriminating photograph Jafar is alleged to have taken. It doesn’t show much — just a pair of young lovers idling beneath a tree — but in this Ur-patriarchy, where girls are promised to their betrothed from the second they leave the womb (with the umbilical cord serving as marital contract, no less) any kind of deviation from that path is viewed as cataclysmic.
Never once seen, this missing picture is real enough in the townspeople’s minds to set off a slow-building tragedy — a tragedy that also, for the most part, happens off-screen. Though Jafar continually denies its existence, first to the girl, then to her rival suitors, then to his landlord and to the town’s leaders, and finally to an angry mob, those very denials might offer an implicit confirmation. Jafar is a proud man, one who has paid more than most for his art; there are places where you have to draw the line.
If Panahi makes us understand Jafar, he also recognizes the rippling effect of his choices. Such is the dense and intricate layering of this deceptively simple film, which has a no-budget aesthetic and a novelistic sprawl. Even a man alone in a room can shape the world around him, both for good and for ill. Even a filmmaker, hounded and deprived, can make startlingly incisive art. Even a political prisoner cut off from it all can make his voice heard all around the world.
“No Bears” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.