Hoor in the Fire of the Imposed War (1991)
Hello all. After a long few months of doing other things and such, I'm taking a few tentative steps back into reviewing movies. What I have today is an obscure Iranian film from 1991 that I stumbled upon online. Why an Iranian film? Well, since I recently learned that the Department of Homeland Security put me on a Terrorist Watch List for some innocent dealings I had with the Iranian Air Force back in 2010 (seriously, you don't even want to know...) I figured I might as well look into some films from our newest Least Favorite Nation and Potential Bomb Target.
The film's title up there is a rough (very rough) translation of the original Persian name, but it will have to do until Google Translate gets an upgrade. The "imposed war" is what the Iranians call their bloody, inconclusive war with Iraq back in the 1980s, an event that killed off an entire generation of young men and shaped the recent history of Iran in ways that we Westerners cannot possible understand. I won't bore you with more history, that's what wikipedia is for.
Before I begin, no, I don't speak Persian or any of its dialects, and no, this movie is not subtitled in any way. And, yes, the print quality is horrible, surely taken from an original copy taped on VHS off Iranian television 20 years ago. So, yes, this will be a challenge and I'm going to have to make educated/purely random guesses about what is going on. But, hey, why not?
Surprisingly, our film's hero is a portly, bespectacled old man in his 60s, perpetually dressed in a shabby greatcoat and knit cap against the winter chill. I suspect he's a holy man of sorts, maybe even an Iman, as he's constantly fingering a copy of the Koran and seems bewildered by all the death and violence around him. His name might even be the "Hoor" in the title, but I don't know for sure. The story revolves around the Old Man's journey to somewhere on the frontlines to do something. There's never any visible resolution to his quest, and nothing that really even explains why he's risking his life here. Perhaps he's going to see a relative? Maybe to visit his old village? That seems the most logical guess, but I have nothing to base that on.
With a Santa beard, no less.
The entire move takes place in the marshy, reed-choked shallows of a murky river. This is surely the Arvand River, which was the de facto frontline for most of the war. The Old Man hitches a ride downriver with a young courier who is delivering supplies on his boat to the isolated river garrisons. The Courier ends up accompanying the Old Man for the duration of the movie and is clearly the "voice of the younger generation", the polar opposite of the grizzled elderly guy. I'll admit to having trouble telling Arabic men apart, especially when they all have matching beards and haircuts, but the Courier helpfully wears a distinctive pale blue shirt all movie.
Shame the print is so fuzzy, he's a pretty handsome guy.
The supply boat, an open, low-freeboard 20-foot fishing skiff with a Yamaha outboard motor, becomes as much a character as anyone actually human. From the tattered red flag on the bow to the puttering gasoline engine at the stern, we spend an awful lot of screen time in this scrabby little boat, as it's the setting for a good chunk of the conversations between the Old Man and the Courier as they get to know each other. It zips around bends, tipping precariously in the waves, and glides noisily through reed-choked narrows, always keeping them safe, despite the frequent mortar bomb straddles and pwinging snipers.
Not the steadiest of platforms.
The dour, drab landscape, rather counter intuitively, also becomes more interesting with time. The dull, flat browns and yellows of the dead winter water foliage provide a nearly unbroken backdrop, through which flitters marsh birds and hazy sunlight, and behind which soldiers hide and fight each other in sporadic clashes. In some of the wide-angle shots you can't help but notice the far-as-the-eye-can-see horizon line, reminding you just how Kansas-flat the Euphrates watershed really is. It's also wintertime in Iran and everyone is dressed in coats and hats and scarves, which is a welcome change from the normal Western portrayal of the Middle East as always being a blazing hot arid desert.
Lots of mosquitoes in the spring.
Throughout the entire movie there are moments of sudden violence that remind us that this is still a warzone. Mortar bombs rain, sniper bullets zing, and machineguns rattle just over there, but people almost don't seem to notice. The hardened soldiers the meet along the journey are used to it by now, and a barrage of artillery shells landing nearby is hardly a cause for concern for these veterans. This was Iran's Vietnam War and after nearly a decade of constant fighting and dying over a squiggly line on a map, it's hard not to sympathize with their blase attitude. I should also note the excellent practical explosive effects used throughout this movie. Often times explosions go off uncomfortably close to the principal actors, showering them with river water and knocking them off their feet. Even the grandpa playing the Old Man has his moment where a twenty-pound bag of gunpowder goes off ten feet from him, hope he was wearing earplugs.
With limited visibility in the reeds, all combat was up close and personal and very loud.
So the Old Man and the Courier travel along the river to a command post of sorts where his journey unfortunately come to and abrupt end. Why it ends (or why it began) is a mystery still, but the Old Man is clearly distraught and depressed that it's done. Perhaps he was told he couldn't get to his village because of the Iraqis, or maybe the person he was coming to see is dead or something, who knows. There's a lot of conversations here with what I assume is an empathetic unit commander and his lieutenant, and based on the earnestness with which they talk, I can guess they're not talking about cars and boobs. All the actors in this movie (and there are no women seen at all) are pretty competent, even if everyone seems depressed and sad all the time. I counted only a couple of smiles and a single moment of laughter the entire movie.
None of these soldiers want to be here, either.
On the way back upriver with the now-empty supply boat, they run into a spot of mechanical trouble and the engine quits on them. Despite the dangers, they decide to transfer to a small canoe and paddle it from there (the Courier seems to be willing to do almost anything to get the Old Man where he needs to be). As they paddle away from the dock in their wobbly canoe, I should note that the steady-cam work in this movie is impressive, rocking and swaying when it needs to convey motion and staying locked down tight when you don't want to distract from the dialogue. Say what you want about the locations and casting choices and political messages, but that's some damn fine camerawork.
Only one paddle.
They soon get lost in the misty darkness and the thick reeds and they start to panic. Their Iranian fellows from the command post are looking for them by now, having received word that they didn't make their last port of call. Also in the area is a gaggle of evil, thickly-mustachioed Iraqis on a patrol in a rubber boat. While we only see "the enemy" in brief glimpses throughout the film, it's clear that the Iranians see them as little more than feral dogs in need of a good bullet-riddling. You do, however, see twinges of regret about all the pointless death and destruction, especially from the Courier, who really just wants to survive another day.
Danger deserves a helmet.
Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes of the movie are a bit of a let down as it devolves into a generic action shoot-out on the river with grenades blasting and AK-47s burping. After so many quite scenes of heady dialogue and soul-searching introspection, I wasn't expecting the third act to be little more than a vicious gunfight to the death. The Iraqi patrol and the searching Iranians duke it out at close range with automatic weapons and the Old Man and the Courier are caught in the middle. The Courier is hit a couple of times and has what I thought was a pretty dramatic death monologue before the last scene when it seems he actually survived. In the climax, the Old Man puts down his religious totems, tosses his Koran into the river, and picks up a Kalashkinov, trading shots with an Iraqi frogman and taking a few hits to his bulletproof vest before bouncing up like he's John Wayne or something. The transformation of a once-peaceful man of god to a rifle-wielding berserker is a bit jarring, and would probably make more sense if I could understand anything he was saying leading up to it. It seems, though, that he's less interested in defending his own life than protecting the injured Courier, who has clearly become a dear friend of his.
Guns are not his thing.
The final scene is the Old Man, frazzled and bruised but still kicking, fishing out a few pages of his Koran from the bloodstained water and sadly reading the blurry lines as he's taken away to safety. The Courier, once thought expired, is seen moving a bit in the patrol boat with the soldiers, and I'm pretty relieved that he wasn't forced to endure some sort of cliched "noble sacrificial death". Never did figure out what the old guy was doing all movie, but perhaps that's for the better, a little mystery never hurts anything. I guess if there's a take-away message to be had from Hoor in the Fire of the Imposed War it's that war sucks no matter what language you speak and what God you worship.
By all estimates, the "imposed war" cost Iran several hundred thousand people in the end.
Written in September 2012 by Nathan Decker.
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that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...