Beautiful films

Some of the world’s most beautiful humanist films have been made in a country demonized by Western media. “Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution” is a penetrating study of the history of Iran, the world’s first Islamic Republic, through the wondrous eye of the camera.

Produced in France with succinct English narration and fascinating interviews with prominent Iranian directors, the story begins with the first Iranian film, made in 1933 by an Armenian, and it continues through all the various Iranian regimes, some installed by the U.S., some not.

Certainly many of us are familiar with the historic revolution of 1979. That Islamic revolution attacked the decadent symbols of the West, including the cinemas that had become known for screening objectionable fare. Cinema suffered a major blow in Iran: 129 theaters were burned to the ground and for a few years the film industry lay dormant.

Then one day the Ayatollah Khomeini happened to see an old film called “The Cow” on television. Somehow it didn’t contradict the tenets of Islam as interpreted by the conservative regime. He said, “We’re not against cinema, but what’s ungodly.” With his blessing, the new age of Iranian cinema was reborn.

And ironically it is this new cinema that has become the darling of film festivals around the world. Names like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf are recognized worldwide and their humanistic films, which stress simplicity, children, Persian poetry, realism and nonviolence, have won top honors.

Some 90,000 students have now graduated from the nascent Iranian Film Institute, and they have created an art style unequalled in the world today.

The all-consuming and destructive Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s did not stop film production, but rather created films of immense urgency and compassion, all within the new guidelines of society.

This documentary is an informative, entertaining tribute and thoughtful examination of how positive cinema can develop in a fundamentalist society. One director interviewed in the film refers to the fact that after winning hundreds of awards worldwide, Iranian filmmakers are acquiring a sort of “untouchable” leverage over the current government, which appears to be willing to gain the prestige in exchange for a relaxation on censorship. In this sense Iranian cinema is leading the regime to a more humanist approach.

If more Americans saw Iranian cinema, and appreciated its honesty and simplicity, there would be a greater understanding of Iran today.

Two films shown at the Toronto International Film Festival were chosen by their countries to contend for an Academy Award but did not receive nominations. One of them, “Grbavica,” named after a small town in Bosnia, addresses the tragedy faced by women who were tortured and raped in the recent war in that region.

Esma and her daughter Sara have an unusual relationship. Esma is willing to overlook all the faults of her troubled 12-year-old child while providing her with all the basic needs in life at great personal expense. Esma walks hours to and from work just to make enough money so her child can go on a school trip.

As the story develops, tragic secrets are revealed about how Sara came into this world and the human drama gets more intense. Esma attends gut-wrenching therapy sessions with real women who endured the horrors of battle. Without revealing the powerful details of this story, true for many women in Bosnia today, suffice it to say that this film treats the issue with great respect and love. The acting is intense and the direction convincing.

There are some films where the action and sets are so realistic that you feel like you lived through the story. The people and places are vivid and remain in your memory for a long time.

Paul Verhoeven (“Robocop,” “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct”) returns to his homeland to direct an action-packed suspenseful historical drama about Jewish refugees in the Netherlands during World War II called “Black Book.”

A young Jewish singer is constantly staying just one step ahead of the advancing Germans. She eventually is recruited by the Resistance and infiltrates the high offices of the German security police, the same people who had her family slaughtered while they were trying to leave.

The courage of the Resistance fighters and the townspeople who are willing to hide the Jews are vividly portrayed, even as they deal with betrayal, double agents and failed intelligence. A large and remarkable cast, big budget and skilled direction make this a thriller that is hard to forget.