Under a starry sky, on a typically warm and humid September night in the heart of Toronto, throngs of giddy Iranian filmgoers (with, of course, the odd exception here and there) formed a serpentine queue outside the historic Elgin Theatre, full of hope and great expectations – and understandably so; for they were a privileged few, who would not only witness the world premiere of a film from one of Iran’s most celebrated directors, but also the performance – and presence – of an Iranian icon. After apparently denying countless other offers for lead roles in other films, Behrouz Vossoughi – perhaps the most beloved and celebrated Iranian film star from pre-Revolution Iran – chose Ghobadi’s latest cinematic venture to make his long-awaited comeback.
Undeniably the star of the evening – far overshadowing even Ghobadi himself – Behrouz was given nothing short of the red carpet treatment, as ecstatic, ogling fans cheered and applauded at his every word, and presented him many a standing ovation. If not for the ‘hero of children’, as Ghobadi referred to him throughout the evening, then for whom else would they do so? For who could ever forget the brazen avenger that was Gheysar, the tragic Reza Motori, the naïve and foolhardy Mamal Amrikaee, or the tough-nosed brawler in Kandoo? It would be perfectly plausible to surmise that on September 12, Iranians stormed the Toronto theatre for little else than to catch a glimpse of that hero of children, and perhaps revel in the memories of Iran’s golden years.
Rhino Season, Ghobadi’s latest film set in Turkey, starring alongside Vossoughi the Italian actress Monica Bellucci and oddly, Iranian pop sensation Arash (as well as a cast of Turkish actors including Yilmaz Erdogan), is based on the story of the ill-fated Sadegh Kamangar, an Iranian Kurdish poet, and draws upon true events, as well as Kamangar’s diaries and collection of poems for its basis. Seen through the lens of Ghobadi, whose direction of the film was based on his personal interpretation of Kamangar’s poetry (as he later revealed after the screening),Rhino Season is at once a love story, a surreal exploration of one man’s soul and poetic vision, and a depiction of the tragic consequences of the Islamic Revolution.
After being framed for writing poems against the ‘holy regime of the Islamic Revolution’, the Kurdish poet Sahel Farzan (Behrouz Vossoughi) is sentenced to prison in Tehran for 30 years, wherein he is repeatedly tortured and disgraced, and falsely pronounced dead. After finally being released, Sahel discovers that his wife, Mina (Monica Bellucci), is living in Istanbul with a new husband and two children. Accordingly, Sahel travels westwards in the hope of finding his estranged wife, and in doing so, catches a glimpse of her new life, learns about her new husband, and befriends two Turkish prostitutes who reveal a painful truth.
Like Ghobadi’s other films, such as Turtles can Fly and Half Moon, Rhino Season is rich with imagery and symbolism, and is marked with his signature brand of enigmatic storytelling as well as his concern for the Kurdish question. However, those expecting familiar ground are in for a surprise. Turtles fall in the hundreds from the sky. Sahel comes face-to-face with a horse which has stuck its head inside his car window. Driving through a barren landscape, Sahel dodges a rhino stampede unscathed, although he kills one of the beasts, which makes a mysterious comeback in the final scenes of the film.
Aside from the symbolism of such creatures – which Ghobadi included in the film as Kamangar was apparently a lover of animals – it’s interesting to see how the director repeatedly makes references to some his previous films (e.g. A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly) through their use. Furthermore, to add to the surreal element of the film, throughout Rhino Season, Kamangar’s daughter recites verses from his poetry in languid Persian, although exactly what they intend to signify is not particularly clear (e.g. The one born on the border is the one who creates a country). As Ghobadi himself noted, he was largely improvising on the set, and didn’t choose the poems for any specific purpose or reason.
Overall, Rhino Season is a mixed bag of sorts. On one hand, it’s notable in the sense that it’s Vossoughi’s first appearance in an Iranian film after over 30 years, and that it brings to light the story of a hitherto unknown poet. On the other hand, however, the film keeps one hungry for more, and on a number of levels, doesn’t deliver the goods. Vossoughi says not a single word apart from a ‘no’ throughout the entire film. To a fan who remarked, ‘we haven’t seen you for 30 years – we want to hear you speak Farsi!’, he jokingly replied, ‘I have been kept silent for 30 years, and Bahman has again kept me silent!’. As well, though the film is extremely poetic and visually beautiful, Ghobadi’s use of symbols are difficult to decipher (if they are meant to be deciphered at all), and leave one feeling somewhat confused at times. Lastly, one cannot help but wonder why the pop singer Arash – who uttered not a word, and was featured for less than a minute in total – was included in the film at all.
That being said, however, it was an incredible experience to have been among a lucky few, in the presence of such giants, who had not even seen the film themselves, and who had only completed the film five days beforehand. Compared with Ghobadi’s previous films, Rhino Season, though a commendable effort, seemed to leave even hardcore Ghobadi buffs and Vossoughi fans deflated, and longing for more. As Ghobadi mentioned, however, Vossoughi is planning to direct his first film shortly, which will tell his life story. Hopefully then will the Iranian icon truly emerge from over 30 years of silence.