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film ‘No Bears’ Review: A Film That Critiques Itself

The latest feature from Jafar Panahi, who is currently imprisoned in Iran, explores the subversive power and the ethical limitations of filmmaking.

Prior to its world premiere in the official competition category of the 79th Venice Film Festival, "No Bears", the motion picture directed by Jafar Panahi, had its poster unveiled in this cinematic event.,No Bears

Why make a movie? Why watch one? As banal as these questions are, they’re also unsettling. The world is so flooded with images that making sense of what’s already there can feel paralyzing; adding something new can seem like the very definition of absurdity. Sentimentality about the power of cinema — to raise awareness, expand empathy, confront the truth, change the world — mirrors a cynicism that insists on cinema’s triviality.

It’s only a movie! That’s as true of “No Bears” as of anything else, but there may be no living filmmaker who has considered the practical and philosophical implications of the art form — the work of shooting and cutting; the pleasure and anxiety of watching — as rigorously or as insightfully as the Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

He can’t be accused of taking movies lightly, or of taking himself too seriously. He has continued to practice his craft, conscientiously and playfully, at the risk of his comfort, his freedom and possibly his life. When in 2010 the Iranian government banned him from directing, he answered with “This Is Not a Film,” a feature-length video diary shot partly on an iPhone and technically not “directed” at all.


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Not long after “No Bears” was completed — it was filmed in secret earlier this year — Panahi was sentenced in Iran to six years in prison. In the months since, mass protests challenging the authority of the Islamic Republic have swept across the country and have been answered with brutal repression.

The movie doesn’t explicitly address the unrest or any other public matters; Iranian filmmakers tend to deal with potentially controversial issues obliquely, walking the line between realism and fable and trusting audiences to understand the implications of their stories, subtle messages that censors might overlook. Panahi pioneered this approach in the early 2000s — while also testing its limits — confronting misogyny and class inequality in films like “The Circle,” “Crimson Gold” and “Offside.” Since the ban, as his work has reflected his own predicament, he has found new ways to combine social criticism with self-criticism.

“No Bears” finds Panahi (again playing himself) occupying rented rooms in a village near the Turkish border, far from his home in Tehran. In a small city in Turkey not far from the village, a film is being shot under his direction — one apparently based on the real-life story of two Iranian exiles, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), who hope to find asylum in France. Panahi supervises the production on his laptop and his cellphone when he has a signal, which isn’t often. His assistant director, Reza (Reza Heydari), tries to convince Panahi to visit the set, perhaps with the help of the smugglers and human traffickers who control the area. But the border is a line the director won’t cross.

Back in the village, he finds himself mixed up in a complicated feud involving a young couple (Amir Davari and Darya Alei) and a bitter romantic rival (Javad Siyahi). It is the belief of interested parties on both sides that a picture Panahi may or may not have taken will have some bearing on the case. The village chief (Naser Hashemi) gets involved, as does Panahi’s host, an unctuous fellow named Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri).