Please Do Not Disturb (Mohsen Abdolvahab, 2010): Iran
Reviewed by Richard Feilden. Viewed at the Los Angeles Film Festival 2011
So my experience with the LA Film Festival for 2011 begins with a scratchy piece of Iranian celluloid. Writer/director Mohsen Abdolvahab’s Please Do Not Disturb gives us a comedic glimpse into the lives of three groups of Tehran’s inhabitants, their stories handing off from one to another like a baton pass in a relay. As we follow them across the city, we get to laugh, and despair, at their very human failings.
The first of the narrative threads concerns a young newly-wed couple. The husband, an ex-journalist now debasing himself as the host of a religious game show, has just beaten his wife. The second chapter follows a pious man who has moved from the countryside to work as a notary and has just has his wallet, phone and important documents stolen on the train to work. The final part reveals the claustrophobic existence of an elderly couple, isolated from the world by mental decrepitude and fear.
If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for laughs then you’d be right! Not many comedies begin with a woman attempting to escape her own home by threatening to scream the place down if the man who has just assaulted her doesn’t let her leave. Yet Abdolvahab manages to milk them for all their politically incorrect worth. From each scene’s unsettling start, he lulls you into accepting the comedy of the situation. You may feel uncomfortable laughing as a man, coming across like a perverse cat-food advert, tries to explain to his wife that eight-out-of-ten husbands beat their wives, or feel guilty chuckling as a senile old gent waves an ancient flint-lock pistol at a suspicious TV repairman, but you will. What lifts the film clear of exploitation is that it eventually turns on you. Each scene rounds off with a moment that brings home the failings of these people. Each person misses a chance to be the best that he or she could be, whether through fear, cowardice, or simple laziness. It bites you on the ass with just enough harsh reality to balance the scales. It’s the very definition of bitter-sweet.
The film focuses on the content of the individual stories, giving room for the characters to breathe, rather than self-congratulatory narrative gymnastics of a heavily interwoven film like 2004’s Crash, and it is much the better for it. The stories are simple and self contained, perfectly believable with enough outlandishness to keep you enthralled. This simplicity carries over to the film’s look as well. The sets are simple and few in number, the camera either stationary or hand-held. Even the acting is generally subdued and, particularly from the leads in the first and last stories, excellent. If you get the opportunity to watch it, I can’t recommend this film enough. The perfect start to the festival.