Jafar Panahi is a filmmaking wizard, defying a ban placed on him by the Iranian government to work largely in secret and create low-key but powerful dramas that illustrate life there under the Islamic regime and, equally as important, his love for cinema.
“3 Faces,” Panahi’s latest, is a mystery, a sorting out of what’s true and what’s made up in film that’s, to steal Kris Kristofferson’s phrase, partly truth and partly fiction.
The truth here is writer-director Panahi, who, as he has done in his last three films, plays himself. This time, however, he’s not the central character.
The second true character is Iranian film star Behnaz Jafari, acting under her real name.
The fiction begins with a young woman named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), who we see in the film’s iPhone-shot opening sequence -- a video that she’s sent to Jafari.
In it, the desperate young woman talks into the camera, saying that her family is preventing her from leaving their village to attend a conservatory in Tehran and become an actress, that she has failed in her previous attempts to contact Jafari, and could think of nothing else to do. It ends with her putting her head in a noose and hanging.
Traumatized, Jafari leaves the set of the movie she’s working on and gets in an SUV with Panahi, who sets out for the northwest Iranian village of Saran, a tiny place in a mountain valley populated by Azerbaijani Turks.
Arriving at the village, the duo discover that Marziyeh has been missing for three days -- and that the disappearance is only part of the scandal involving the “empty headed” girl who has the temerity to want to leave the village and become an “entertainer,” a profession scorned by the villagers and, to some measure, the Iranian government and society.
Marziyeh’s desire to leave has made her family near outcasts in the village -- she has no friends, save one girl -- and her brother, it seems, would do anything to stop her from leaving.
Poking around the village, Panahi and Jafari visit the graveyard, where they find a grandmother lying in a open grave she had dug for herself, but discover no other newly dug burial places -- raising yet another question to follow the opening sequence. First, was the hanging a prank or an act? Then, if it was real, where is the body?
No spoilers here -- the rest of the film plays out to answer those and other questions, becoming less of a conventional mystery but raising additional queries about the village, its assault on Marziyeh and her family and the role of entertainers and artists in Islamic Iran.
That’s a question particularly relevant to Panahi, who is one of Iran’s most visible dissenting artists. Since his arrest in 2010 on charges of making anti-Islamic propaganda and being hit with a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Panahi has managed to make four pictures -- shooting inside apartments, cars, buses and brilliantly in a “Taxi” in 2015.
In “3 Faces” he employs many of those same techniques. But shooting in the village, far from the censors and the threat of arrest -- the camera comes out for some more traditional shots as the mix of players, actors and amateurs, interact in service of the story.
As he has done in the last three movies, Panahi plays a fictionalized version of himself, serving as the guide for Jafari and the viewer while he knits together a picture that doesn’t fit easily into any genre.
Instead, it’s a mystery-based drama that isn’t resolved until literally the final 40 seconds of the film, another examination of Iranian life and a look at the sacrifices made by artists, be they aspiring and fictional or established and real.