Iran’s post-revolutionary cinema has been earning well-deserved plaudits for decades, but even obsessives such as myself have seen precious few films made during the Shah’s lengthy pre-revolutionary reign. Shatranj-e baad (Chess of the Wind, playing 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, at the Pacific Film Archive), for example, has been unavailable for more than 40 years. Produced in 1976 and banned shortly thereafter, the film was considered lost until it was rediscovered in a Tehran junk shop in 2015.
Now the film has been fully restored, and it’s quite the revelation. Directed by 32-year-old Mohammad Reza Aslani — who has since had the opportunity to helm precisely one additional feature — it’s an incredibly accomplished first effort, and probably annoyed the ayatollahs as much as it did the Shah’s men.
Set in the 1920s, Chess of the Wind stars the incredible Fakhri Khorvash as Lady Aghdas, invalid daughter of a wealthy family’s recently deceased matriarch. Confined to an elegant wooden wheelchair, Lady Aghdas finds herself in open conflict with the loathsome Hadji Amoo (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz), her mother’s bullying husband-for-a-day and apparent legatee to the family fortune. Plotting and backstabbing become the norm in their deeply divided household.
Perhaps best described as a gothic drama, Chess of the Wind details the decay and venality of the bourgeois class (that’s the part that would have irked the Shah) and features a brief lesbian scene and hints of pederasty (to the likely displeasure of the post-revolutionary order). It’s no wonder it disappeared for 40 years, and a miracle it was rescued.
Reminiscent of Delphine Seyrig’s luminous turn in Harry Kümel’s Les lèvres rouges (Daughters of Darkness, 1971), Khorvash’s performance blends stoic restraint with seething, below-the-surface anger to magnificent effect. The film also features the screen debut of Shorheh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as Lady Aghdas’ personal maid and confidante, as well as a magnificently ominous score by Sheyda Gharachedaghi. In short, this is a women’s picture that might have turned George Cukor green with envy.
And then, of course, there’s the house itself: a baroque, slightly gone-to-seed mansion filled with ornate furniture and a basement full of large glass bottles that end up playing a critical role in the narrative. Reminiscent in equal measure of the films of Luchino Visconti (I’m thinking particularly of The Leopard) and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Danse Macabre” (compare the film’s final shot to that of Antonio Margheriti’s 1963 Poe adaptation Castle of Blood), Chess of the Wind is both a triumph and a tragic reminder that Aslani’s talent and career were cut short by the fears of insecure, authoritarian bluenoses.
There have already been quite a few COVID documentaries, and no doubt more are on the way. While HBO’s In the Same Breath unflatteringly contrasted the Chinese and U.S. governments’ responses to the crisis and 76 Days focused on the trials and tribulations of Wuhan’s frontline healthcare workers, The First Wave (opening on Friday, November 19 at San Francisco’s AMC Metreon) follows New York City doctors, nurses, and patients throughout the pandemic’s first four months. It’s brutal stuff, and I’m not just talking about the occasional appearances of now disgraced Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Finally, Bulletproof (opening Friday at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater) takes a painful look at the retail industry that’s sprung up around the school shooting industry. Yes, there’s money to be made training teachers to fire handguns, selling bulletproof white boards, and manufacturing Kevlar hoodies. Talk about your decaying, venal bourgeois societies …