‘No Bears’ Review: Jafar Panahi’s Inventive, Illuminating Autofiction Builds to a Tragic New Twist in the Tale

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When the definitive book on dissident filmmaking is written, it will have at least several chapters and a lengthy appendix dedicated to Iran’s Jafar Panahi, who has now covertly made five astonishingly resourceful features since being banned from filmmaking by the Iranian authorities in 2010. But given those circumstances, perhaps the biggest ongoing surprise of his career has been just how lively his illegally shot films have been — even while, as metafictions, they refer continually to the hampered circumstances of their creation.

No Bears,” which premieres in competition in Venice, certainly starts in that register, with a rugpull or two and handful of seriocomic, absurdist observations on the foibles of Iranian village life. But then, as though it were anticipating the worsening political situation which culminated in Panahi’s detention in July 2022 for a six-year prison sentence, the mood darkens, prior to an ambiguous but devastating finale which seems to even include the director’s own tendency toward playfulness in its critique. If Panahi’s dissident films have to date been journeys of discovery about the subversively liberating, life-affirming power of cinema, “No Bears” is where he slams on the brakes.

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Zara (Mina Kavani) is a waitress in a cafe on a bustling, raggedy street. Sneaking out from work, she meets Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei) who has good news: After years of waiting he has acquired a stolen passport for her, on which she will be able to travel to Europe. He has not been so lucky on his own account, but insists Zara goes on ahead, and he will join her. Zara, confused and upset, refuses to leave without him, but already now, those attuned to the scrupulous naturalism of Panahi’s filmmaking will know something’s up. There’s an edge of staginess and artificiality in the way the buskers strum their instruments and the way a passing delivery man whistles cheerfully as he ferries a pallet of baked goods on his head.

Sure enough, a voice yells, “Cut!” This is not the film the director of “This is Not a Film” is making. Instead, it’s the project-within that Panahi, playing a version of himself as usual, is overseeing remotely. The shoot is taking place just across the border in Turkey, while Panahi, banned from leaving the country, delivers direction to his AD Reza (Reza Heydari) down an unreliable interet line from the tiny, tradition-laden Iranian village of Jabbar (pop. 165). Cue a lot of scrambling about waving his pocket WiFi in the air trying to reestablish a connection, before his affable, ingratiating host Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri) comes to help his “dear sir” out with a ladder to a promising rooftop.

Ghanbar insists, however on climbing up there himself. The neighbors, while outwardly the very model of legendary Iranian hospitality, are secretly a little suspicious of visitors to their little border town and, explains Ghanbar apologetically, they might think Panahi is spying on them. And indeed they do: Panahi listens back to an accidental hot-mic recording Ghanbar made while filming a local wedding ritual and hears the villagers speculating wildly about what he’s up to. Eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves, but Panahi, preoccupied with his movie, is more gently amused than worried. While he waits for updates, he wanders the village, snapping photographs of local kids and learning about some of the seemingly quaint but actually chokingly patriarchal local customs from Ghanbar’s mother (Narjes Delaram) while she cooks him platters of food in a sunken clay oven.

But two incidents change the mood. First, Reza takes Panahi on an illicit visit through smuggler territory to a hilltop overlooking their shooting location, and when Reza mentions that they’re actually standing on the invisible border, Panahi stumbles back as though the ground were suddenly lava. And second, on their way home in the dark, a distressed young woman, Gozal (Darya Alei), looms up out of the night. She begs for Panahi’s help in suppressing a photograph she believes he’s taken of her and Solduz (Amir Davari), the young man she loves despite being betrothed to surly local hothead Jacob (Javad Siyahi). If he shows the picture to anyone, she insists, “There will be blood.”

Panahi maintains he never took such a photo, but the entire village, including its sheriff ( Naser Hashemi) soon becomes involved in the widening scandal, while on set, too, things begin to fall apart. The movie he’s shooting is supposedly based on the real circumstances of Zara and Bakhtiar’s bid for escape, but when they’re filming the final scene, which has been manipulated in order to bring about the desired hopeful denouement, Zara breaks down. “We’re in this mess so you can create your happy ending,” she says, pulling the wig from her hair and addressing the camera, Panahi, and us directly. “But this is all fake.”

Her ultimate fate suggests Panahi agrees with her disillusionment, and with the escalating tensions in the village also illustrating the inherent peril of filmmaking — a kind of Observer Effect whereby simply the presence of a camera fundamentally alters the reality its meant to record — it’s hard not to read her accusations as Panahi accusing himself. When, inadvertently or deliberately, and often with the best of intentions, we fudge the difficult, untidy truths of life in order to satisfy our own storytelling desires, what is the cost to the people whose stories are misrepresented?

Reteaming with DP Amin Jafari — who shot his last film, “3 Faces,” as well as his son Panah Panahi’s fantastic debut “Hit the Road” — Panahi again manages to deliver moments of rich visual interest within a necessarily off-the-cuff aesthetic. And his own onscreen presence is as wryly avuncular as ever, lending increased weight to the frustration and self-directed anger that flashes from him as the separate but echoing strands of the film both move inexorably toward tragedy. There are no bears in “No Bears,” where the ursine threat, a little like a national border or an archaic, repressive tradition, is a fiction designed to keep inhabitants from straying too far from the village alone. But it doesn’t matter if such dangers and demarcations physically exist. If the fear and hostility they engender is real, they can be just as lethal.

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