Film Review #136: Border Café
Director: Kombozia Partovi
Cast: Feresteh Sarde Orfaei, Nicholas Papadopoulos, Estobeta Mikhailishnia
Once there were three Iranian brothers whose village lay along a main trucking highway in the northwest corner of their country, about 30 miles from the Turkish border. The middle brother, Ismael, left this village as a young man and when he returned from his travels he brought back a bride, Reyhan (Fereshteh Sarde Orfaei), from another part of Iran. The customs were different there; Reyhan’s own mother had worked as a cook to support four children after losing their father in wartime. Ismael’s love match produced two young daughters, Leila and Sara, when he suddenly died, leaving Reyhan with a café outside town beside the truck route.
The eldest brother, Nasser (Parviz Parastoei), owner of a more lucrative, upscale restaurant in town, expected to take Reyhan as his second wife and raise her children as his own. Patient, generous, courtly in his own understated way, full of assumptions about how this would go, he locked up the roadside café and ordered a new wing built on his house.
The youngest brother, Karim (Jafar Vahabpour), glowering, hot-tempered and mustachioed as a cartoon bandit, had no wife or business of his own but stern ideas on handling women, so Nasser is constantly restraining him. A potentially comic figure whose red pick-up truck often roars off in a spray of gravel, Karim turns abruptly frightening when he beats a Greek truck-driver trying to court Reyhan so badly that he breaks the man’s leg.
Border Café isn’t really about these three brothers – a standard plot line the world over – though the missing middle brother’s independence remains a tantalizing mystery and the others suggest the varieties of coercion that women face in some parts of Iran. Instead, Border Café is about Reyhan herself, who simply, respectfully, decisively, says no to Nasser’s offer, and about how she makes that stick.
First she refurbishes her own house, doing the heavy stucco work herself. She struggles with disciplining her children, who are not sure she is still in charge. Then she hires her husband’s old manager, Oujan (Esmaeil Soltanian). They clean and paint the cafe a vibrant blue - some time seems to have have passed before she regains possession of the key, and clearly the old cafe had been run-down when Ismael died - then split the labor so that he works the dining room and she the kitchen. Soon heavy rigs crowd the lot outside, from Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey – after all, this is a very ancient trade route. Soon the Greek driver Zackaria (Nicholas Papadopoulos) warms to Reyhan when she makes him moussaka from scratch. Soon a young Russian highway girl trying to get to Italy, Zvieta (Estobeta Mikhailishnia), stops awhile under Reyhan’s wing. Then the Turkish border closes for two weeks due to “the PKK” – these are the Kurdish independence fighters based in nearby northern Iraq so much lately in our news – stranding the foreign truckers, and the brothers’ simmering impatience and consternation at Reyhan’s café boils over.
Besides focusing his story on Reyhan, Iranian writer-director Kombozia Partovi creates an alternative story of “home” and true hospitality that outweighs Nasser’s version of honor and family values. Set against Nasser’s first confident and then increasingly indignant speeches and declarations, both Zackaria and Zvieta speak only a few halting words of Reyhan’s native Farsi. These lonely travelers still pour out their losses and longing to her in their own languages, sitting in her sunny garden, and begin to learn her's. Each later muses how Reyhan’s café “felt like home.”
Iranian cinema is robust and widely respected, with directors who persistently address the lot of women under Iran’s Islamic regime despite great discouragement from that regime. Border Café is Partovi’s eighth feature film. A prolific screenwriter, Partovi has worked with director Jafar Panahi (who edited Border Café), for example writing Panahi’s award-winning 2000 ensemble film about women, The Circle – still banned in Iran – in which Fereshteh Sarde Orfaei (who is Partovi’s wife and collaborator) starred too. Panahi’s newest film, Offside, a biting comedy about young women sneaking in to watch the World Cup qualifying soccer match – women are banned from sporting events in Iran and this is based on his daughter's foray in disguise – has also just gone to DVD.
Border Café comes to us via the Global Lens Initiative, a project started five years ago that picks ten foreign films a year that have earned significant notice in the international film community – Border Café won festival prizes for Orfaei’s acting and Partovi’s direction – but have failed to find a US theatrical distributor. These films tour major US cities, after which First Run Features assures DVD release that includes bonus features about the film’s country and national cinema, as well as information about that year's other Global Lens selections.
Border Café is a wisely chosen gem.
This review appears in the 11/15/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.