Iranian cinema in all its poetic humanity is beautifully displayed in Panah Panahi’s “Hit the Road”, a charming and quirky journey through distant spaces (and at one point, fantastically, into space itself) which follows a close-knit family from Tehran. four entering uncharted territory.
It’s tempting to consider Panahi’s feature debut in some hereditary line compared to the decidedly sociopolitical and realistic work of his father, the state-targeted filmmaker Jafar Panahi (“Offside,” “3 Faces”), who is still under a 20-year cinema ban in Iran. But that idea is attractively counteracted at every turn by the way the whimsical and heartfelt “Hit the Road” is sure to chart its own artistic path of humor and heartbreak, sight and sound, and vividly detailed observed mixed with the unexplained.
The opening scene, which begins with a shot from inside the family’s mini-SUV on the side of a lonely highway, is one of those subtle signals of Panahi’s conscious independence from the expected comparisons. The parents doze in their seats. In the backseat, their youngest boy (Rayan Sarlak) pretends to play on drawn piano keys that adorn the cast of his father’s (Hassan Madjooni) leg, his fingering matching the Schubert sonata we hear. The eldest son (Amin Simiar) is outside, wandering around the perimeter of the car, stopping to stare sadly at his mother (Pantea Panahiha). He then turns to look at the horizon – what awaits us?
The calm is interrupted by the woke mum’s fear that their little one has, contrary to his wishes, smuggled a cell phone on the trip. The boy’s mischievous defiance, paired with the weary father’s ironic handling, kicks off the film’s delightful variety of exuberant children’s comedy. But the generally tense demeanor of the driving son and the anxious, sentimental preoccupations of the mother — no phone, suspicious cars, family memories, lip-syncing to beloved pre-revolution pop songs — indicate that this is no ordinary journey for these unnamed characters.
Eventually, it becomes clear that they are heading for the border, where the older brother is to be illegally deported from Iran. This heavy mission – which must cross the minds of all who suffer under Iran’s authoritarian regime – is less of a typical narrative suspense engine, however, and more of a dramatic construct for Panahi to paint a picture of the dynamic family when colored by the most heartbreaking kind of urgent solidarity.
What happens is a deliciously controlled yet entertaining blend of pre-mourning and instantaneous pleasures, a tonal blend of miraculous balance for a beginning filmmaker, even with Panahi’s unique training. (He also apprenticed with Iranian author Abbas Kiarostami.) And as the landscape shifts from a dry, dusty plain to mist-covered mountain passes, Panahi’s deep framing of his unnatural and Amin Jafari’s crisp, dreamlike cinematography further alters the atmosphere, to something almost supernatural. In one case mentioned above, Panahi leaves the earth entirely (with the help of some gently applied visual effects), and yet you immediately understand how and why he gained this soft, dark drift from reality.
The performances are spot-on, too, from the mini-maestro of modesty Sarlak (what a child actor!) to the magnetic whirlwind of motherly strength and vulnerability that is Panahiha, who has a poignant moment to herself so delicate you can practically feel the breeze that draws a smile. The men, meanwhile, do their best to present a stern front, but in a comedic exchange between Madjooni’s gruff, wise father and Simiar’s worried firstborn, set against an impossibly picturesque setting, the awkwardness is touching.
“Who is the traveler? barks one of the intimidating sheepskin-hooded bikers facilitating this family’s costly and emotional act of sacrifice and love for their adult son. What “Hit the Road” helps us realize is that they all are, of course, and to be a passenger alongside these nervous travelers, as they clash, tease and cherish on the way to this strange and terrible turn in their life, is to be a very lucky moviegoer indeed.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.