“Atabai,” the latest of her dramatic features and first to attain significant international distribution (others had prominent places at numerous festivals), shows both Karimi’s skills and ambitiousness as a director. While containing a range of striking performances and some of the most gorgeous imagery of any recent Iranian film, it also powerfully explores a uniquely challenging dramatic topic: male subjectivity.
Kazem (Hadi Hejazifar), the film’s protagonist, is a pillar of his community but one who seems constantly on the verge of imploding. When we first see him, he’s returning to his town in northwestern Iran from a trip of unspecified length to Thailand. Why was he away? The film supplies no answers but the more we see of Kazem’s life and relationships, the more we can sense travel as one of several psychic safety valves he regularly needs.
An architect and developer who constructs vacation homes for city dwellers in the picturesque land where he grew up, Kazem is haunted by his thwarted relationships with two women. One, his sister, committed suicide years before after being married to a rich landowner many years her senior; though Kazem has long assumed that the girl’s unhappy marriage was the reason she set herself on fire, it’s a belief that will be upended as the story progresses.
The other female who remains an active presence in his memory is a girl he fell in love with during college in Tehran. Though completely enamored of her beauty, he never mustered the courage to build a relationship because of how the other students treated him as a country bumpkin. They ridiculed his looks, his speech, everything about him, Kazem recalls decades after the fact, though the insults left wounds that evidently are still fresh.
On the male side of Kazem’s relationship ledger, Aydin (Danial Noroush), the son Kazem’s sister left behind, is now a spunky, high-spirited teenager who obviously idolizes his uncle but also bears the brunt of his frequent rages. Kazem loves the boy but his efforts to serve as a surrogate father inevitably conjure up the violence visited upon him by his own father (Yousefali Daryadel), now a white-haired opium addict with a ruefully distanced view of his family’s problematic dynamics.
The other significant male in Kazem’s orbit is Yahya (Javad Ezati), a friend from the past who shares one of the film’s most striking scenes with him. Out in the country, the two men set an old tire on fire and roll it down a hill, then get drunk (implicitly, since the act is verboten in Iranian cinema) and delve into hidden issues and emotions from their history, a conversation that unleashes some long-buried secrets.