It’s winter (Zemestan) (12A) | Close-Up Film Review


Dir. Rafi Pitts, Iran, 2006, 86 mins, subtitles

Cast: Mitra Hajjar, Ali Nicksaulat, Hashem Abdi, Said Orkani

Review by Tim Waltho

Every so often you come across a film so beautifully and simply crafted that it redefines your expectations of what cinema should be. Zemestan is such a film.
Set in the midst of a harsh Iranian winter, Rafi Pitts’ film is a stark and harrowing portrayal of life amongst the poverty-stricken working class of modern day Tehran.

Not able to support his family, Moktar (Abdi), leaves Iran’s capital in search of work and money abroad. As he boards his train, off gets Marhab (Nicksaulat), an enigmatic drifter, drawn to Tehran for exactly the same reasons that Moktar is leaving; and thus begins a cyclical occurrence of events.

We follow Marhab as he walks the streets of Tehran; a brando-esque anti-hero, washing car windscreens for change, and breaking into factories to find work. Nicksaulat plays Marhab with just the right amount of frustrated contempt, a cigarette permanently attached to his lips, and a swagger in his step.

While Moktar is away, Marhab falls for his beautiful and resourceful wife Khatoun (Hajjar). Left with a young child and a grandmother to look after, Khatoun has to hold the family together. She leads a monotonous and unfulfilling life as an under-paid factory seamstress, the only break in her endless routine coming when, the day after she’s notified of her husbands death, she wears a black headscarf to work instead of the requisite blue. Hajjar is perfectly cast in the role, wonderfully under-playing Khatoun, as a woman who just gets on with things, because she has to.

Zemestan also has its lighter moments. There’s a wonderful relationship between Marhab and local mechanic Ali Reza (Orkani), which provides some much needed comic relief, and the marriage between Marhab and Khatoun gives the film a faint glimmer of hope. But that all soon dissipates, and as the winter gets bleaker, and Marhab’s search for work gets more and more desperate, he too decides that it’s time to move on.

Pitt interweaves these stories masterfully, binding his characters together in a fatalistic triangle that rarely feels like ending happily. Zemestan looks beautiful too. Tehran’s desolate winter landscape, filmed exquisitely by cinematographer Mohammed Davoodi, adds to the film's unforgiving bleakness, and helps to give the Tehran that Marhab and Khatoun inhabit an old timeless quality. In fact, every single shot in this film is beautifully framed, and thoughtful, and Pitt seems to be able to coax magic out of even the smallest incidences, like Marhab and Ali watching an aeroplane disappear overhead, knowing that they will never be able to touch it, or the freedom it represents.

With films like Zemestan bursting out of Iran, Middle Eastern cinema will soon be impossible to dismiss. Rafi Pitts is part of a new wave of neo-realist Persian film-makers dealing with real issues, and with this sorrowful tale of the unforgiving cruelty of the human struggle, he has created a rare and subtle masterpiece, both bleak and beautiful, that will leave only the coldest of hearts untouched.