'Djomeh' continues tradition of excellent Iranian films

Some critics say the most important film development of the past dozen years has been the arrival of Iranian cinema as a powerful presence on the international scene.

It's hard to disagree. At times, I wonder if we reviewers have been expressing our enthusiasm too automatically for one Iranian export after another, and each time I vow to watch the next one with a cool and critical eye. I do - and more likely than not, I'm swept off my feet all over again, marveling at the poetry, intelligence, and sensitivity that Iranian films embody.

If a new Iranian movie is cause for excitement, there's even more to celebrate when a major new filmmaker comes along. "Djomeh," which won last year's Cannes award for the best work by a first-time director, was made by Hassan Yektapanah, a former assistant to Abbas Kiarostami and Jafir Panahi, two of the most towering Iranian talents. Like them, he has a knack for simple stories told in quiet, unassuming ways. Also like them, he knows how to build a series of seemingly slight incidents into an absorbing tale with great emotional strength.

The title character is an Afghan immigrant who works at a small Iranian dairy farm. His job takes him to several small villages where he makes deliveries, and where the residents treat him with cold suspicion because he's a foreigner. His only friend is his boss, who listens sympathetically when he reveals his memories and hopes. Their relationship grows more complicated when Djomeh falls in love with an Iranian woman, and needs help winning her affection - no easy matter, given the strictness of Iranian courtship customs and the fact that Djomeh doesn't fit the local profile for a desirable catch. Every moment of "Djomeh" is marked by a sense of gritty authenticity. The performances are utterly genuine, and the story is a delicate blend of slice-of-life realism and soft-spoken social commentary.

In short, this is the sort of movie Hollywood rarely dreams of making, fearing it would be too subtle and understated to capture a mass audience. It's unlikely that "Djomeh" will make it to multiplexes, but it should show up at art-minded theaters and may well get an American video release as well. Catch it if you can, because it's as rewarding a film experience as you're likely to have this year.

Not rated; contains no objectionable material.

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