DIRECTORS’ FORTNIGHT: Panah Panahi carves himself a place in world cinema with quirky road movie “Hit the Road”

CANNES, France – A passing of the torch, of sorts, happened this year in Cannes, quietly: Jafar Panahi, high priest of Iranian cinema, bestowed the title upon his son (figuratively, of course). The Panahi name also became synonymous with a film dynasty, the counterweight, if one were to unseriously look at world cinema as a congeries of fiefdoms, to the House of Makhmalbaf.

Panahi, whose films will usually premiere at Cannes, has a son by the name of Panah. Panah Panahi, a thirtysomething, recently directed his first film, “Jadde Khaki,” “Hit the Road in the English translation.  

“Jadde Khaki” premiered at “Director’s Fortnight” five days ago to a positive reception. The filmmaker himself was present and participated in an informal Q&A from the stage following the screening. 

For his road movie of a film, Panah Panahi has put together a quirky group of characters. A family, of four who say and do surprising things most of them senseless and allowing very little about themselves. Each person has his share of secrecy and plays a role that goes beyond that of mother, father, younger or older son. There’s no hierarchy here, no one-way flow of communication. But one thing unites them all: anxiety, the anxiety from impending separation from the elder son, riding with him all day to the border, from where he will cross into some other place.

This family also counts a dog who is sick. 

The father (played by Hassan Madjooni), who’s been laid up, sits at the back of the vehicle, an SUV, his lower leg in a cast festooned with writings and, among others, a piano keyboard. In one scene his son mock-plays a tune on it. The father, whose background is unknown, like the other family members’, apparently likes dark humor and cracks weird jokes.

The mother (Pantea Panahiha) radiates anguish at her two sons, worrying about their respective futures. The youngest (Rayan Sarlak), the alpha male of the lot, is a freak of slapstick eccentricity, as small and as young as he is restless and creative. The older son, the driver, is the silent type, nothing is known about him, all the mystery which adds to the slight frisson the film might produce in the viewer. 

Later on, it becomes known that the sole purpose of the trip was, in fact, to drive the eldest to the border.

Panahi’s invitation to follow this family across Iran’s mountainous region, an arid and craggy and picturesque region, is hard to decline.  

The sumptuous natural setting provides for breathtaking shots, the near-infinite vastness of Iran’s landscapes standing in direct opposition with the confines of an SUV and the four people in it.

This formalist opposition between the infinitely large desert and the car gives a break in tone that is necessary and refreshing. It is at the heart of the juncture between two times and two scales where the most interesting details about this film live. This is where the most crucial information can be found and as the film progresses towards its end, it appears that the theme is, at first, escape from the city. We learn a little later of the purpose for the trip. Is the son on the lam? Does he owe money? Is he dodging military duty?

The family makes a number of pit stops along the way, each one leading to unusual happenstance and shenanigans. One of them involves stopping to buy a sheepskin, the seller has them stretched out on a line, he suggests a dark one, for hiding better. Apparently people riding through there are border crossers. They buy a white sheepskin

In another scene, the car crosses paths with a group of cyclists. The car pulls up next to one in particular and they exchange words but a collision occurs. They give the cyclist, who holds a B.A. in sociology he tells the others, a ride and have a discussion about Lance Armstrong and the checks and balances that we place on ourselves. It’s not a funny discussion but the occasional trip-induced inertia that affects everyone on board really hides a growing tension, an apprehension about the elder son who will soon have to cross the border.

The young boy hid a cell phone in his bum, his parents confiscate it and destroy the SIM card. What sort of pressures are they under? Later, when they reach a camp near the border, the boy is tied to a tree to keep him from hanging on to his brother too much come goodbyes time. He screams into the night, he’s completely manic, it’s funny but it’s heartbreaking at the same time. 

Panahi has made a very peculiar and unique first film, it’s smart and it’s unpredictable, his choice of giving us as little as possible about the characters and instead  let their quirks speak for itself was laudable. “Jaddeh Khaki” is a metaphorical road movie that exists a couple degrees south of reality, a stand-in for an elsewhere that Iranians could dream of.