***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***
"The White Meadows" (2009) is a rather strange offering from the Iranian neck of the woods that, believe it or not, got its writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof and his editor and filmmaker Jafar Panahi arrested! Both were sentenced to six years imprisonment for film-related activities that were considered propagandist and went against the interests of national security. And then it boggles the mind as to how a film of such visionary magnitude and sheer poetic beauty could tick off the powers that be.
This bizarre tale unfolds in the form of an allegorical fable, and despite its surreal nature, it is clear from the content that the message of the film is very much rooted in the stark reality of a nation that thrives on repression and censorship. "The White Meadows" is a slyly veiled critique of various issues in contemporary Iranian society. Not everything that happens in the film can be taken literally, and yet the meaning that is revealed beneath its many layers, shockingly mirrors real life scenario. This is a testament to the state of a society that is suffocated by religious extremism, dogmatism, misogyny, and grave injustice in the area of arts and creativity.
Brace yourself for an outlandish plot that revolves around a middle-aged boatman, Rahmat (Hassan Pourshirazi), with his briefcase containing tiny glass flasks. He moves around landscapes that resemble something straight out of a heavenly dream; large water-bodies that contain almost desolate salt-encrusted islands, filmed on location at Lake Urmia. Well, it all looks like heaven anyway, but the life in these parts is hellish!
The islands are all sparsely populated, seemingly self-sufficient habitats to some of the biggest simpletons and most superstitious folk who follow and believe in some of the craziest ancient traditions and lores. What does Rahmat do for a living? He is a collector of people's sorrows! Literally, he collects their tears in his flasks as they mourn their dead, or lay bare their deepest emotions. What he does with these tears, no one knows, except there is a myth going around, that he converts them into pearls! "Tears should be treated with respect. They are valuable. Not a single drop can be wasted", he explains.
Rahmat is a quiet observer and a listener, yet not one to intervene. He witnesses the worst kind of stupidity, unfairness and barbarism on each island he visits, but never gets directly involved in their businesses. He is not a saint either, as we soon learn. He is a practical man, however, and often insensitive. So while he lends an ear to little man Khojaste, who is supposed to carry glass jars filled with confessions down to a deep dark well in order to appease a disgruntled fairy, he insists that he go ahead with the task, for people were all waiting for it to reach its conclusion.
But who would really look out for the poor bloke who could be marching towards certain death, thanks to a ridiculous tale cooked up by a senile old lady who insists that the water is salty because the fairy is angry! What of these glass jars? They are heavy with words that are actually petitions of the inhabitants to the fairy. But as clear as the transparency of the jars, is the fact that there is nothing in them, really. Much like how voices are unheard, written protests and complaints mean nothing and hence are invisible to an authoritarian fundamentalist regime.
Circumstance puts Rahmat in charge of a young boy who wants to travel across the waters to find his father, whose brain dried up and he went missing! Nothing else is known about this lost father except his name, yet his son sets out anyway. Perhaps his father also escaped the salty prisons, much like his son now did, in order to get away from the rigours there, in search of an air of freedom, but possibly perished in the attempt. The boy's presence puts a reluctant Rahmat's job in jeopardy and hence he is asked to pretend to be deaf and dumb in order to stay on. Isn't this the fate of most common folk in the Islamic Republic of Iran? Practically everyone who wants to belong, has to be mute and conform, else face the consequences. How ironic then, that eventually God works a miracle and puts a stop to the boy's pretense! But Rahmat is least concerned with the boy's woes, so much that he doesn't do a lot to heal the boy's wounds, but doesn't miss collecting that single tear that trickles down his cheek.
On another island, Rahmat sees a beautiful young girl about to be sent off to become the bride of the sea. That entails, of course, a ritualistic sacrifice by drowning her after testifying that she is a virgin! This episode is perhaps the most infuriating of the lot. Rahmat can't do much about this either. He just momentarily pities her by saying, "It's fate"; then proceeds to do his job by opening up his flask for the mourners who are congratulated by the attendees of the ghastly ceremony. The ritual itself could be an exaggerated version of some unknown custom, but this vignette speaks volumes of the condition of women in a male dominated society.
The most blatant attack on the system and its censoring ways comes in the vignette of the painter who paints the sea red. This attracts the ire of the elders who won't accept that the sea isn't blue. But the painter insists that he sees it that way; it's his vision. Perhaps he sees the salty water soaked in the blood of the victims that have been long perishing in it and the ever growing sea, consuming the people trapped on the islands. Two other young men are ordered to subject the painter to some treatment to cure his vision.
This includes some atrocities like forcing him to look at the sun and pouring animal urine in his eyes, until he begins to see that the sea is blue again! Nevertheless, the artist in him refuses to relent. He always sees red, or some other colour. Anything but blue; far from pleasant! Eventually it leads to his banishment. This vignette in many ways reminds of filmmakers and artists who dared to rebel with their works and faced bans and imprisonments in authoritarian societies. The great Sergei Parajanov comes to mind along with several other modern artists, and ironically, in a prophetic twist of fate, the maker of this film himself!
The same episode features a supplement in the form of a mini circus of a monkey dressed up in a bridal costume, chained and trained to entertain people. This strange but pertinent snippet serves as a connecting bridge between the the previous episode of the sacrificed bride and this one of the corrupted artist! The bridal costume brings to mind the sacrificial bride, made to dance on the whims of her masters. Likewise, isn't the monkey also a performer, an artist, but actually a trained puppet whose strings are pulled by its master?
Perhaps that is the plight of all artists, essentially. No free speech, no freedom of self expression, but a forced way of life, imposed by their rulers. We see another chained monkey later in the film; shortly after we see some prisoners on an island, shackled in similar chains! On this same island, weeps an old man who dreams of fleeing to a place where the water is fresh and the land is not a salty marsh. Perhaps the old man echoes the voice of every other individual who feels trapped in an inescapable nightmare of an oppressive regime.
The weirdest events happen in the final scene when the viewer is finally made aware as to the fate of the tears collected. In this same scene which takes place, seemingly at some socially well off property, we come across a painting on the wall that looks like that of an island in a vast, red sea! And then there's a woman that bears a striking resemblance to the bride of the sea! There are various ways to interpret this puzzling scene, but the symbolic giving away of the girl to some higher power manifests literally here, and that the same kind of painting for which its artist faced banishment, adorns the wall of this large abode, perhaps, revealing an inherent hypocrisy of the places higher up?
"The White Meadows" commands the viewer's attention, even though it may leave him/her baffled with more questions than answers. Yet, a lot of the intricacies will gradually reveal themselves once the viewer decides to submit to the sheer power of a cinematic product such as this. Films like these don't get made very often, and anyone who is up for something challenging and thought-provoking is bound to embrace it with open arms. Others who don't care to dissect or analyze may still find some beauty to behold in its visual and sonic brilliance.
The fate of the filmmaker of "The White Meadows" is unknown as of now, but the fate of this film lies in the hands of the reader of this post. This haunting masterpiece, a criminally underseen work of art with a subversive edge, is actually the voice of its creator, Mohammad Rasoulof begging to be heard across the globe. And it is up to us, to experience it and spread the word.