It’s not too long into Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales that the film really begins to take its place as the follow-up that her City Trilogy (Nargess, The May Lady, Under the Skin of the City) deserves. For starters, this isn’t some subtle connection in the first place – a great majority of characters from this trilogy reappear, some within the opening minutes of Tales. In this, Bani-Etemad’s latest film is a myriad of things: an intimate character study, a film that studies the human condition, and a film that navigates the unseen and lower-social strata of Iranian society. Bani-Etemad is concerned with drug use, prostitution, the poor and economic issues in general; she deals with political issues but in a less explicit way than many of her Iranian contemporaries – and Tales is a far stronger work in its decision to operate as a work that explicitly focuses itself on this idea of those who exist in Iran, out of sight.
Tales is a film that operates with an ensemble cast that are both intriguing and diverse; within a broader vignette-based framing. More than this – in reprising roles from Bani-etemad’s earlier films and documentaries, her characters often give a reassuring familiarity and intimacy for long-time fans of the directors work. The film opens with Abbas driving a taxi, talking about how his wife has taken up work and he is doing extra shifts to support himself (after his decision to enter the drug trade in an earlier Bani-etemad film, Under the City, rendered him in dire straits monetarily). Now, he’s portrayed as less frantic, further down the track, but also pushing out his own intrigue without any necessary preexisting context that Bani-Etemad’s earlier films offer. The establishing shot in the taxi is almost a homage to a motif of Iranian cinema, most recently touched upon in Jafar Panah’s Tehran Taxi, but conceived in earlier films such as Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten and Taste of Cherry. This idea of human interaction in absolute isolation from others watching gives an intimacy to the space of a taxi in Iran, and like the reprisal of her characters, the reprisal of such a recurring motif establishes early on that Tales is a film that thrives on a deep intertextuality – affirming the breadth and complexity of Iran’s cinematic landscape in the process.
Tales finds itself in an interesting position, in that Bani-Etemad clearly intends it to serve as a standalone film (all of the characters are given time to establish themselves, careful development takes place, and the unfolding and interweaving of these titular tales sits at the centre of the film; and none of this requires a comprehensive viewing of Bani-Etemad’s previous works.) That said, for those familiar with the directors earlier work there’s a few genuinely interesting shifts present in Tales that an audience approaching the film without the broader context will miss out on. The most interesting part is how Bani-Etemad engages with her filmography, not simply through existing characters but through the presence of documentary within the film. The film opens with a camcorder shooting out of the window of the aforementioned taxi, in a style that rings back to Bani-Etemad’s documentary-phase of filmmaking. Before long, this character filming reality is fictionalised as part of the broader sphere of the film and a sort of transition takes place into the fictionalised drama of Tales. In this, Bani-Etemad paints a fascinating dichotomy where the film functions both as a fictional standalone work, and an experimentation in form and the verisimilitudes of cinema as part of its broader filmic context.
There’s a strong fluidity to the framing and transitions that Bani-Etemad employs within Tales – as the scenes flow into one another with a a genuine natural pace. For instance, in the second vignette, a conservative older man concludes the scene by getting onto a train before a young couple behind him (who are having a conversation that is, to him, upsettingly progressive) unknowingly push the man to leave the scene, as they remain and their conversation is brought into focus as the next vignette. In this, Bani-Etemad weaves a series of tales about Iran today, but more so; she shows how interconnected they all are. Tales is a rare, humanistic study of how a complex and diverse array of people in Tehran – downtrodden, poorer, and out of the vision of the ‘upstanding individual of society’ – live. It doesn’t have the cinematic flair, nor does it flirt with absurdism in the way many of Bani-Etemad’s contemporaries do. Instead, Tales is a realistic and eye-opening look at a diverse, multi-faceted and enrapturing city; and the various people who exist within it.
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