During the first eight years of a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi has been unable to leave the country, but he keeps pushing his creative limits, proving the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. His first film under the ban, cagily titled This is Not a Film, was produced under house arrest and smuggled to Cannes on a flash drive embedded in a birthday cake. His subsequent efforts, Closed Curtain and Taxi, have expanded those boundaries considerably while also sticking to a set of core conceits: Panahi and other collaborators playing version of themselves, secret productions shot on small cameras or smart phones, and a hybridization of documentary and fiction styles. By not making films, he's discovered extraordinary new ways of making them.
Panahi's political defiance hasn't been tempered by these restrictions, either. His career-long challenge to the patriarchy, expressed in earlier films like 2000's The Circle and 2006's Offside, continues with his latest effort, 3 Faces, under the guise of semi-guerrilla filmmaking.
His advocacy for women takes symbolic form in an opening sequence where he keeps himself entirely offscreen, training his camera instead on Behnaz Jafari, a popular Iranian actress who appears as herself, but gives a performance of a multiple dimensions. He may offer a guiding hand, but as a character and as a director, "Mr. Panahi" facilitates a meeting between three women while deliberately receding from view. In one scene, he actually lowers his car seat until his face is out of the frame.
3 Faces starts as an urgent mystery. Jafari has received a disturbing cell phone video from a young woman named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), who lives in a remote, conservative village where the residents speak Azeri Turkish, which reinforces their separation from the rest of society. In the video, Marziyeh talks about her dream of becoming an actress and her acceptance into a conservatory, but her family refuses to allow her to go, even after she agrees to an arranged marriage. At the end of the video, she leads the camera into a cave where a noose dangles from a branch lodged above her head, and it's suggested that she committed suicide. And if she hasn't, this is certainly a cry for help.
Taking an abrupt break from her latest shoot, Jafari recruits Panahi to drive up the craggy, one-lane mountain road to Marziyeh's village to investigate. She feels responsible for the girl's possible death, even as she and Panahi are both skeptical about whether they've witnessed a suicide or a bravura performance by a would-be actress. When they approach the village and Marziyeh's family, they're greeted by the Iranian equivalent of "Minnesota nice" — outwardly cordial and inviting, but laced with an air of low-level hostility. They are celebrities and impostors at the same time, surrounded by young autograph-seekers while the elders quietly assess their motives. Old traditions die hard.
3 Faces eventually brings together three actresses of different generations who have pursued their passion against the limits imposed on them by men, whether in the home or on a movie set. Panahi treats the issue with surprising delicacy and humor, though, building the film in episodic bits — an old woman explaining why she's laying down in her own pre-dug grave, a local who offers up a cloth containing his adult son's infant foreskin as a gesture of good will. These rituals are precisely as baffling as they sound, but Panahi folds them into an environment where men hold sway, even in symbolic snippets.
The limitations imposed on Panahi have turned him into a different filmmaker, a sophisticated minimalist whose work straddles the line between fiction and documentary. By appearing as themselves, Panahi and Jafari give a made-up scenario the quality of real life, as if they're actually been recruited to help an aspiring actress liberate herself from a fate she didn't choose. Though 3 Faces ultimately questions the traditions that bind her, it also respects the complexities of the situation and the insularity of a community that wants to preserve its integrity. Panahi's sympathies are clear, but his humanity is boundless.