Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine

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Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine Movie Review


The story is that of Bahman Farjami, an Iranian director in advanced middle age who hasn't made a movie since the revolution of 1979, who was widowed five years ago, and who himself has suffered a pair of heart attacks and watched a number of his friends from his filmmaking days die. Farjami hasn't worked because the Iranian censors have denied him a permit, but at the beginning of 2000's Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine he's obtained permission to make a documentary for Japanese television about funeral rites in Iran. He's buoyed, if still depressed - the best years of his life have been squandered by the revolution, his mother is terminally ill, his children have moved abroad - and in a spirit of mixed hopefulness he goes about gathering together his colleagues from the '70s. What he finds is more sickness and sorrow; it seems that death is near at hand for all of his old group, himself included, and what started as a documentary about no one's death in particular begins to turn into the story of his own.

Those familiar with new Iranian cinema, which tends often to be semi-documentary in form, will be unsurprised to learn that Farjami is played by Smell of Camphor's actual director, Bahman Farmanara, and that the film echoes details of his own circumstances. Farmanara exhibits a particular animosity toward Iranian censorship - a completely justified position, obviously - and in Smell of Camphor it seems as if he's set out to break as many of these prohibitions as possible: Our hero gives a ride to a woman unknown to him, he takes a stab at Iranian health care, some French is heard (foreign words being forbidden in Iranian film), there's upbeat music (likewise forbidden), our hero prefers solitude (unhealthy and forbidden), a bearded character is portrayed unfavorably, the police are referred to disparagingly, and so forth. (I am not, by the way, making any of these restrictions up, and it's worth noting that recent crackdowns by conservative Iranian factions within the state-run film industry would make this film impossible to produce today, only four years later.) Farmanara himself went without work since directing 1979's Tall Shadows in the Wind. Watching his first-person indictment of the system that robbed him of his livelihood ("I do not fear death," he says at one point, "I fear a futile life."), your heart bleeds for him.

Smell of Camphor is being marketed as something of a black comedy, and while it does include some strange material (our hero is attacked in a swimming pool by dwarves, for instance, and there's a cleric who describes burial procedures that include speaking the name of the deceased three times to his remains before shaking his head with your hands), its tone is one of distress. Farjami is marked by loss, and his encounters tend quickly to transform into meditations on mortality, aging, regret, and oppression. The laughs are rare. And scenes are sometimes wrung for pathos too plainly, as when Farjami reads Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fable of Silence" to his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother, or when he explains that self-flagellation is used to commemorate saints, but not artists. His use of symbol, as in the title syzygy, can be likewise uncertain.

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine is the most direct attack of artistic oppression in Iran to have yet reached the screen, and I salute Farmanara for his commitment to giving the censors' victims a voice. His artistic vision, on the other hand, is hit-or-miss and his material hangs together rather slackly. At one point near the film's end, the director is addressed by, I believe, a duck, who warns him of his imminent demise, and the picture takes a Fellini-esque turn in which Farjami observes his own funeral in surreal detail. The sequence itself is winning but, like the cleric's advice about funerary rites, several landscape shots, and intertitles dividing the film into chapters, it stands out from the core material about this artist's day-to-day life in Iran somewhat jarringly. The effect is less that of a complete vision than a not-quite-successful collage.

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, newly available on DVD, remains a worthwhile stop for those interested in the still-vital Iranian film culture, and as a warning about the dangers of joining church and state it's bracing.

Aka Booye kafoor, atre yas.


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Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine Rating

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