Iron Island

on March 31, 2006 by Sheri Linden
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With striking simplicity, inventiveness and fluent pacing, "Iron Island" creates a microcosm of Iranian society aboard a rusty, abandoned oil tanker. Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof's feel for his characters' plight, his eye for telling detail and his warm touches of humor infuse this crisply told tale with an eloquent vigor.

A few hundred yards offshore in the Persian Gulf, Captain Nemat (Ali Nasirian) presides over the bustling economy of a ship where poor, homeless families have come to live. The captain -- patriarch, entrepreneur and matchmaker in one turbaned figure -- charges no rent for the onboard cubicles, but crossing the decks with his ever-present account book, he collects his share of merchants' earnings, charges desperate mothers for medicine and has a thriving business selling cell-phone calls to the mainland. Ignoring increasingly urgent notices that the owners plan to reclaim the ship, he's selling it, scrap by scrap, out from under its tenants.

Rasoulof uses a light hand to sketch in the colorful male characters, while the women remain anonymous behind burkas and masks. Uncle Sadegh, an old man in shades, peers into the horizon day after day, waiting for something to happen. The ship's teacher, continually warning Nemat that the vessel is slowly sinking, weaves subversive commentary into his lessons. The captain takes a special interest in teen Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh) but won't help him marry the girl he loves (Neda Pakdaman), instead provoking the boy's rebellion by brokering a lucrative marriage deal on behalf of the girl's father.

Poignant and surreal, "Iron Island" unfolds through narrative shorthand. The two teens wordlessly express their forbidden love, using a homemade pulley between their nighttime berths to exchange personal items. Two donkeys arrive by lift to help Captain Nemat's child labor force in his oil venture. Bemused boys sit before the ship's TV, watching "Titanic." Reza Jalali's penetrating camerawork combines a documentary power with lyrical compositions of the sunlit seascape, the blistered surfaces and dark inner corridors of the ship and the deceptive calm of the surrounding pale green water. Starring Ali Nasirian, Hossein Farzi-Zadeh and Neda Pakdaman. Directed, written and produced by Mohammad Rasoulof. A Kino release. Drama. Persian-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 87 min

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