Sunday, July 19, 2020

Review - August

July 19, 2020

August – Iran, 2017

I recently watched Kevin Smith’s Dogma, and I was struck by just how much exposition there is in the film. It goes something like this. A character – usually one of the angels – mentions a biblical figure or aspect of Christianity, only for someone near them to express their ignorance of it, thus necessitating a wordy, as well as lengthy, explanation - ostensibly for the benefit of the character, but really, we’re the intended audience. We are assumed to be as oblivious as the character. The technique is a mixed blessing. While many viewers will walk away having had their eyes opened to certain concepts, the action grounds to a halt, and this is a problem for a film like Dogma, one in which time is supposedly of the essence. But I digress. This is not a review of Dogma. Rather, it is a look at Bahman Kamyar’s August, a film that takes an entirely different approach to ambiguity.

Instead of over-explaining, Kamyar, who wrote the screenplay as well, aims to amplify the audience’s uncertainty, and when it does indeed drop a clue, it is very likely to be a red herring. It was wise then for Kamyar to tell the story from the perspective of someone who would likely reach these false conclusions. After all, for most of us, the first explanation we reach is often the easiest to take. Were our minds to anticipate the most horrific scenarios, we would likely drive ourselves into such an unstable mental state as to render us in need of some serious help.

August tells the story of Roya (impressively played by Ra’na Azadivar) and Amir (Mohammad Reza Forutan), a recently married couple, whose marriage has fallen on hard times. During one scene, we watch them sitting next to each other and eating dinner in complete silence. Roya narrates the film, and in its first scene, we hear her comparing life to a boomerang – in other words, implying that the past has a way of returning and potentially harming you and your loved ones. So, just what skeletons lie in Roya’s closet? Apparently, two failed pregnancies and a bacterial infection which still prevents her from getting pregnant. The two still wish to have baby, though, and they are planning to go to London to undergo a rather expensive treatment. However, as the date of their departure approaches, doubts arise in Roya, partly as a result of her husband’s increasingly suspicious activity.

There is ample support for Roya’s suspicion – from Amir’s peculiar decision only to take calls on the balcony, where Roya cannot hear the conversation, to her discovery that Amir has been lying to her about going to work. Kamyar cheats slightly when he cuts away from Roya and shows us snippets of moments from a third-person perspective, such as when he shows us Amir straightening his tie in an apartment that is clearly not his. Moments like that aside, the first half of the film is mainly about Roya’s doubts and regrets, and it is this part that resonated the most with me. Roya fluctuates between blaming herself for her childlessness – and also for her husband’s possible infidelity – and questioning the importance of having children in the first place. After all, she reasons, just why is it that a woman to whom motherhood is denied is deemed to be living a lesser life?

I referenced Dogma earlier, and the consequence of its characters’ habit of launching into long explanations. Well, August takes the opposite approach. While it is perfectly understandable that Roya cannot tell us exactly what is going on, for the mystery to remain undefined, the characters who are in the loop much remain rather vague about their actions, even when discussing them when people in the know, and this strains credibility. In one scene, Amir remarks that they’re “doing all this for [Roya].” Just what this is remains unsaid. At other times, characters act in ways that are inconsistent with people in their situations, lying to the very people they should be honest to if they are going to have any hope of evading suspicion.   

Of course, these are reflections made after the fact. In the moment, they are somewhat effective, adding an additional layer to Roya’s insecurities and growing concerns about bringing a child into the world. I enjoyed many of the film’s early scenes. An early one in which Roya goes shopping with an overly nervous pregnant friend is fascinating and ends with a sweet image of her friend beaming with joy after feeling her child kick and an equally overjoyed Roya with her ear to her friend’s stomach. In another memorable scene, the two visit an orphanage and express their inability to comprehend why parents would abandon their children.

The film takes a dramatic turn in its second half, during which a new character is introduced. The dialogue remains coded, yet clues can be gathered by noting the location, emotions, and procedures referenced. In other words, it all makes sense in the end. Well, almost everything. By the end of the film, I found myself asking whether someone in Amir’s position would really have acted so mysteriously, but maybe it was a natural reaction to doing something that you believe is morally wrong.

August is a decent, yet problematic film. It puts far too much effort into keeping the truth at arms length, yet when all is revealed, what we have is a realistic tragedy, a tale of characters forced to take desperate measures – one as a direct result of Roya’s actions (the boomerang effect, again). I also appreciated it for shining a light on a problem not often associated with Iran and for its willingness to look at that issue from multiple angles. Still, the film didn’t resonate as powerfully as it should have. I found myself less invested in the survival of Roya and Amir’s marriage, and as a result, the conclusion produced a look of slight indifference rather than a tear.

I would be neglecting my duty as a critic if I didn’t mention the inaccuracies in the film’s subtitles. I watched the film on DVD and was frequently frustrated. Apparently, someone thought No, he was to be here? was correct English. At one point, a character is said to have filled him in. What she means to say is that someone filled in for him. Sadly, there are many more examples of this, which is a pity. A movie like August doesn’t usually get a double dip, making it yet another film imperfectly preserved for posterity. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*August is in Farsi with English subtitles.

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