Jafar Pahani’s 3 Faces escapes the confines of the director’s home (This Is Not a Film) and even Tehran (Taxi) as the recording of a young girl’s apparent suicide spurs him, and celebrated Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari, to take a odyssey to the mountain villages of northwestern Iran. There, the two investigate the mysterious recording’s origins and, more importantly, the environment surrounding it. For once, Pahani sets down his camera’s spurs of protest that were so apparent in films, following his imposed 20-year ban on filming, to adopt something of meditative outlook, a critical examination of the greater Iranian culture that both adores and alienates the country’s extoled artists.
Almost immediately, Pahani interrogates the verity of the young girl’s suicide recording and its easy to see why. The recording is almost too consciously opaque, shot on information-depriving portrait mode, in a remote location, and with little information to go on. Pahani’s investigation on the mountainside village, which at first seems like a protest to grave institutional injustice, becomes just as likely a dissection of desperate vanity.
To Jafar Pahani, the aspiring actress, forbidden from attending a conservatory, could have very likely have made the recording been an intricate ploy to lure her idol Behnaz Jafari to come to her remote village. In any case, the video indeed successfully drew Jafari to her backcountry village in hopes of finding answers. Her recognizable face attracts throngs of villagers to surround the car as it cruises across gravelly, unpaved roads. Despite the possibility of the entire scenario being an elaborate deception, the famous actress is initially compelled by the girl’s pleas and takes it upon herself to investigate the unfathomable silence surrounding the apparent tragedy.
Part of the film’s intent, to trace the roots of the recording and its reason for existing, is Pahani’s need to understand the greater Iranian culture not seen in his previous films. 3 Faces becomes both an odyssey of illuminating kind of alienation when he encounters overwhelming celebrity-worship and total ignorance in equal measure in the villages. “You don’t look like cemetery regulars,” says an elderly villager, a line that spurred laughs in the theater. As Jafari is dumbfounded by the overwhelming attention her celebrity draws, Pahani is utterly fascinated by the collective indifference of the villagers toward not only the girl’s plight, but toward artistic passion in general.
It is not without self-reflection that Pahani looks critically at the young girl’s longing to be in movies, so much so that she has made some questionable decisions to support that desire. Her conservative upbringing paired with knowledge of an expansive culture outside her village has led the aspiring actress to decide her only means of liberation lie in film. Pahani, who was sentenced to house arrest when filming This Is Not a Film, found an escape with a camera in a manner all too familiar to him. Both occasions can be characterized as acts of protest to a gross persecution, sentenced them to live lives cut-off from the outside world. In that, Pahani finds haunting reflections of his own existence in the mountain village, where life without avenues of artistic expression somehow carry on.
It is with his infectious brand of amusement that Pahani explores this girl’s strange world which, through generations of tradition, remains curiously divorced from his and Behnaz Jafari’s. The colorful characters of the mountain villages unexpectedly come to shape the alienation and fascination Jafar has for the people of rural Iran. But this curiosity for the fringed culture only remains that in 3 Faces. Pahani and his camera only observes fragments of this mountain society and from afar, ceremonial gatherings, modest homestead perched against painterly rural backdrops and quiet observances of day-to-day backcountry life. In the end, Pahani’s need to understand the greater culture outside his perception comes with his generous acceptance that there are details to these places and people which he will never comprehend.