Exiled Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi returns with "Rhino Season", a new film made in Turkey, loosely based on the true incident of a poet unjustly imprisoned for almost 30 years for writing supposedly subversive poems. He was released at the end of that long a period, only to learn that he had been declared dead to his family years ago!
Those are the only similarities however, as far as the connections to the actual incident are concerned. The protagonist in Ghobadi's film is a victim of something much more than political influences. Upon being released from prison, the Kurdish-Iranian poet in the film, Sahel (Behrouz Vossoughi) learns that his wife Mina (Monica Bellucci) is remarried and migrated to Turkey.
A grey, wrinkled Sahel, quiet and brooding, looks Mina up, and spends most of his time loitering about her house on a cliff, but never gathers the courage to approach her. Perhaps he is afraid of disrupting her present life, for as far as her knowledge, he's been dead a long time ago and she has spent years crying over his empty grave. Perhaps he just wants to wait for the right moment. Most of the film carries on in silence and reciting of poetic musings, as Sahel lights his cigarette, broods some more, observes, and reminisces the dark past that sheds light on the events that led to his incarceration.
A series of flashbacks reveal that Mina in fact belonged to a rich family in the Shah regime. Her chauffeur Akbar (Yilmaz Erdogan) was obsessively in love (lust?) with her. He faces the ire of his employers, when once, in a rather stupid move, he declares his love for Mina. Humiliated and acrimonious, he uses the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 to his advantage, thereby getting Sahel imprisoned for 30 years and Mina for 10! Years of unimaginable torture and rape in prison follow, and when Mina is finally released, Akbar still continues his pursuit of her; so desperate is his desire for her! And this, after also participating in some heinous acts of violating her in prison as well!
All this sounds too melodramatic on paper. In the end, for all its art-house trappings and breathtaking, striking beauty of some of the most wonderful imagery captured on celluloid, the plot of Ghobadi's film somewhat resembles that centering around a vengeful, psychotic, obsessive lover, a premise done to death in several Hollywood thrillers!
While one cannot overlook the cliché ridden, contrived plot, it is not the sole element driving Ghobadi's heart-work. There's a lot else to look out for; other aspects that work in the film's favor, making it a work of art to give some benefit to. For one, "Rhino Season" is a deeply personal experience for its filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi who had to leave Iran and go into a forced exile in 2009 after being threatened by some Iranian intelligence agents. His work was deemed subversive too.
The lead actor Behrouz Vossoughi had left Iran way back in 1979 and settled in the U.S.A. and has never worked in films ever since. Both these men have faced tumultuous times and have had to leave everything behind in the country they loved, much against their own will. Artists have had to face censorship from some extreme forms of government the world over. Ghobadi's case was no exception, neither was that of the aforementioned poet, whose case inspired him to make this film. After a phase of depression, Ghobadi knew that he just had to make a film again to keep going. This emotional sentiment reflects in the very mood of the film, as Ghobadi's film is a melancholy in motion.
Via some sublime, poetic verses and ethereal imagery achieved through stupendous camerawork, and some of the finest cinematography to grace celluloid (credit: Turaj Aslani), Ghobadi weaves pure magic. The images look like mobile painting on a canvas, with accentuated lighting effects.
The use of slow motion especially in the dream sequences or the scenes which reflect the mood or state of mind of the protagonist render a trance-like, hypnotic feel. You almost feel like you are floating! The genius editing with which these surreal sequences are melded with the real ones, is noteworthy. Of course, the accompanying haunting score and poetry recitals supplement these wonderful images. It further corroborates the fact that an image speaks a thousand words. Cinema is the most powerful medium to convey emotions. "Rhino Season" is no exception, as every frame is dipped in such awe-inspiring beauty, it is difficult to take your eyes off the screen.
You can't miss some symbolism-heavy visuals, notable ones with animals in them. A photograph of a perpetrator is thrown among leeches. In one of the film's best scenes, turtles fall out of the sky. In a follow up scene, one turtle that falls on its back, manages to flip itself straight, and moves on. A horse shoves its head into the window of a car, and many more.
Some of these visuals are of course, references to past Ghobadi films. Aside from the enticing, visually arresting frames, there are events in the film that are far from pleasant. Yet, without resorting to gratuitous on-screen violence or brutality (most of the atrocities are off-screen or shot in a technique so as not to be in-your-face), the images that follow are evocative of a somberness. It is not surprising considering how emotionally drenched Ghobadi himself was during the filming process.
And of course, the mood wouldn't be as effectively put across if not for the tremendous performance of veteran actor Vossoughi who returns to screen after years of absence. He has hardly a word or two of dialog but it is his face that does all the talking here. Ditto for the gorgeous Monica Bellucci who delivers with an offbeat turn as the oppressed Iranian woman, again, relies on silence and subtle gestures for a memorable performance.
The film perhaps would've worked better without those terrible plot contrivances that plague the narrative in the last third; there are always these huge coincidences that mar the credibility of a story. They aren't really necessary but the film wouldn't have that stamp of a colossal tragedy on it, which nevertheless seems somewhat forced here. Without these developments, the film would still be just as effective as a sad account of the catastrophe of a man who loses his youth and his love, all due to petty jealousies of a man who couldn't stomach his good fortune. Without the plot shortcomings, the film would go greater distances as an exemplary work of cinema that stands tall owing to its lyrical storytelling. Nevertheless, the latter facet still triumphs, and for this reason alone, "Rhino Season" deserves to be watched.