Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fannizadeh) has come to Tehran. He’s a schoolteacher, and in tow, he has a lamp, a mirror, and books. He drops the lamp, the mirror falls, and the books are spilled on the ground. An inauspicious entrance if there was one.
Hekmati falls for Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi), a beautiful young woman indebted to Rahim (Manuchehr Farid). Rahim owns the building where Atefeh and her elderly mother lives. There is a suggestion that if Atefeh were to marry, it would be to Rahim. But she doesn’t love him, and so: A stalemate. Rahim is big and burly; Hekmati is not. They quarrel, and Rahim wins, easily. But Atefeh is not a prize to be won. Her loyalty is to Rahim, but her heart might belong to Hekmati. Might. It’s a big word, too big for Hekmati, and so he goes—vanishing into the Iranian sky.
So it was with Bahram Beyzaie, Downpour’s writer/director. Beyzaie was a scholar of the stage and the screen and poured his life into both. Then the Muslim Revolution came in 1980, and Beyzaie was out. His films were destroyed, and every print, save for Beyzaie’s personal 35mm print, of Downpour was burned. It’s that print the World Cinema Project used to resurrect a work almost claimed by an intolerant society.
Downpour’s Persian title, Ragbar, refers to the sudden and short cloudbursts famous in Iran. It rains in Downpour, but the title is not a reference to these moments, but to Hekmati, a man who leaves as quickly as he came. Beyzaie, who no longer lives in Iran, recounts a story where an audience member approached him after a screening of Downpour and asked, “It’s your story, isn’t it?” It took a while for the question to sink in, but when it did, Beyzaie realized that the ragbar didn’t reference Hekmati, but himself.
Downpour is not perfect. The story is a little on the slow side, but the imagery is second to none. Using short shots and cubist cutting, Downpour is a fever dream of images, some neo-realist, others surrealist, crafted in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Barbod Taheri and Maziar Partow. From Hekmati constructing an auditorium for the students to the meeting in the park with Hekmati and Atefeh, everything here feels fresh. That meeting in the park: She on the bench alone. Then he arrives. First, he sits on an adjoining bench, then scoots over to hers. There’s enough distance between them a nun could see two Holy Ghosts. They talk, grow friendly, and then, suddenly, Beyzaie cuts to a zoom shot: The frame widens and we can see all of Hekmati’s students behind him in the trees. Human surveillance. The whole town is watching.
There are many such scenes: Hekmati and Atefeh’s meet/cute on the stairs, the rainstorms, Rahim pulling out three knives from the same jacket, and on and on. It’s funny and casual, serious and foreboding all at once. May it never be forgotten.
Written and directed by Bahram Beyzaie
Produced by Barbod Taheri
Starring: Parviz Fannizadeh, Parvaneh Massoumi, Manuchehr Farid, Mohammad Ali Keshavarz
Not rated, Running time 128 minutes, Downpour is now available in the Blu-ray/DVD box Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 from The Criterion Collection.