A family road trip like no other
Film Review: Recently awarded the Jury Prize at the International Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia, Iranian director Panah Panahi’s debut film, Hit The Road, is a melancholy drama, exalted by the spirit of its most young main character.
One of the most interesting Iranian titles of this year’s festival season, the debut of Panah Panahi Take the road recently received the jury award at the Red Sea International Film Festival, a brand new – and much-debated – Saudi gathering that took place in Jeddah from December 6 to 15, 2021.
The prestigious distinction came after a very successful festival. World premiere at Cannes in July, the film went on to win the Best Asian Feature Award in Singapore and the Best Picture Awards in London and Mar Del Plata.
“The choice not to clarify the purpose of the trip represents a very effective plot device which makes it possible to reveal – at least in part – the personalities of the main characters and their family relationships”
In his first feature film, Panahi, a former student of the Tehran University of the Arts, son of eminent filmmaker Jafar and assistant to the late Iranian cinema master Abbas Kiarostami, tells the story of a chaotic family road trip to through the rugged landscape of his country.
In the first scene, we get to know the protagonists of the film: a neglected fifty-something father with a broken leg (played by Hassan Madjooni), a slightly younger and caring mother (Pantea Panahiha) and their two sons – a phlegmatic man in in his twenties (Amin Simiar) and a lively and witty child (Rayan Sarlak). Their faithful companion is an old family dog, named Jessy, who is living his last days and whose incurable disease is kept a secret from the youngest son.
But where is this family going? This is the first question that can arise, and most of the time it will remain unanswered until the end.
However, as in many other great films and plays, here the journey matters more than the destination. The choice not to clarify the purpose of the trip represents a very effective plot device that allows us to unveil – at least in part – the personalities of the main characters and their family relationships.
Fortunately, such complexity is made possible by excellent performance. For example, one feels that the mother – portrayed with great candor and elegance by Panahiha – is constantly trying to keep the spirit of her family, but she does so to hide her true feelings.
Meanwhile, Sarlak’s spirit, typical of his young age, helps uplift the mood of the tale, but we realize that such lightness hangs by a thread. Her parents justify their trip by saying that her brother is going to get married soon and must join his wife, but it is clear that the truth is destined to be discovered sooner or later.
The solid interpretations of the principals are further emphasized by Amin Jaiari’s mostly static camera work. Here, the DoP tries to limit the usual dynamics of shooting / reverse shooting. Wisely, he focuses on portraying the characters’ reactions in their entirety when they are seated in their car and making his shots wider and wider when they are out of the vehicle. In addition, he does not hesitate to shoot long shots so that the talent of the actors flourishes and the narrative rhythm slows down as the end approaches.
In particular, two of these moments are worth mentioning; the long foreground sees the father and eldest son placed in front of the camera while chatting next to a stream, while the second observes family members from afar so we can understand what is going on just by listening to their voice or watching how they walk.
Even though the director’s main goal is probably to explore the relationships between the characters and how these can be unsettled while escaping an imminent threat, a general sense of oppression and paranoia permeates the entire play. In one of the first scenes, for example, a motorist wants to report a leak from the family SUV and the group fears he is a police officer.
Despite the presence of this tense atmosphere as a backdrop, Panahi makes no explicit socio-political statements. Rather, it tells viewers something about the underlying feelings one can experience while living in a police state. We don’t know why the older brother is forced to cross the border, what went wrong, who his enemies are and why he takes the whole family with him. But we realize that his parents could be there to enjoy the last moments of his company as if they were on a regular family trip.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian film critic and journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni