There are few tropes older than one about a person in a desperate search for something in a foreign land. With the refugee crisis that occupied the headlines in the not so distant past (the crisis is still here, but the headlines unfortunately moved on to something else), the trope evolved to a sub-genre of its own, to so-called migration cinema. On the surface, “Pari”, a European co-production film by an Iranian filmmaker Siamak Etemadi, could be confused with such a film. But this Berlinale title that premiered in Panorama section of the festival is something completely different: a unique cinema experience that defies simple labeling.

Pari” is screening at Berlinale 2020

We meet our eponymous protagonist on a plane to Athens. She is played gracefully by Iranian-German actress Melika Foroutan as a quiet, dignified woman who radiates with kindness and whose face, framed by hijab and some of the visible tar-black hair, is still beautiful. Pari is coming to Athens together with her bearded husband Farrokh (Shahbaz Noshir) to visit her son Babak who is supposed to study in Greece. However, Babak is a no-show at the airport, he is also absent from his small and messy apartment (as it turns out, he left the debt for last several rents), and he barely spent any time studying, passing no exam and losing his scholarship.

The couple’s quest for the young man turns out to be futile when it comes to regular places Persian diaspora tends to frequent in Athens. Farrokh gets weary of the search couple of months in (there is more than one reason for that), but Pari remains persistent. Anarchy signs and some dark, psychedelic poetry he left behind are the only things that could steer the couple in the right direction. Already stunned by the Western decadence and, due to circumstances not worth spoiling, Pari sets out on a search completely alone. But even with the help of a sympathetic anarchist Zoe (Greek actress Sofia Kokkali in a hearty episode) who saw Babak once or twice, it turns out that he is too much of a free spirit even for that kind of cop-fighting, punk-rock-listening crowd. A type of a person who would become a dervish, a poet or a sailor, as it is stated at one point of the film.

What is unique in the film is Pari’s perspective itself, a perspective of a foreigner in a strange land whose culture she does not know, a perspective of a woman from a certain culture that demands some kind of passivity and, above all, a perspective of a mother who wants to make up to her son for not giving an effort to get to know him, but rather trying to mould him to fit some ideal image. Envisioned by Siamak Etemadi, who has been based in Greece for the last two decades, the image we get is layered and respectful to both cultures, while also highlighting their differences and incompatibilities.

The script loses a bit of momentum and outstays its welcome only near the very end that still packs an emotional and cerebral pay-off, but Etemadi’s sense of directing is perfect. Fundamentally a psychologically dense and atmospheric noir, a mystery detective story of sorts, it shifts gears in both directions, towards a serious drama about parenthood, or towards a more thrilling, at times even action movie, in a very smooth fashion. Its shifts towards dreamy or nightmarish reality from a plain one are masterfully coded in editing (done by Panos Voutsaras), colour palette shifts and camera movements in Claudio Bolivar’s cinematography and the use of suspense-inducing eerie score by Pierre Aivat.

However, the whole film relies heavily on its protagonist and the actress portraying her. Pari’s journey of cognition is by no means a linear one, it is usually gradual, but sometimes it also turns to be shocking. The character is changing constantly and Melika Foroutan is absolutely able not just to follow the cues, but also to dictate the tempo, at the same time remaining faithful to Pari’s essence, even when she gets to the places darker than she was ever able to imagine. Like its titular character, “Pari” is a deep, emotional and unique piece of cinema.

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