Background: It seems that a lot of foreign movies, at least those that the art snobs try to cram down out throats as being somehow better then anything made domestically, are geared towards audiences that treat movies with actual entertainment value as beneath them. They seek out titles that are found solely in film festivals that no one has ever heard of in order to play the one upsmanship game and read hidden meanings into every obscure passage from the movies in order to feel superior. Thankfully, not all foreign movies cater to such types, some of the best from around the world finding their way onto DVD thanks to small companies like Film Movement. Their movies tell stories from around the world, shown from the perspective of directors that may never see huge budgets or get the kind of time needed to explore every nuance available to them; dispensing with the self important crud in favor of entertainment value (and I'm not talking car chase, shoot out, sex scene material either). The latest movie from them I got in for review is a small gem called Men At Work (Kargaran Mashghoole Karand; not the Australian pop band from the 1980's).
Movie: Men At Work is an Iranian movie that seeks to dispel some of the myths westerners have about folks from the Middle East. It starts off with a band of affluent friends coming back from a ski trip where things didn't go as planned, only to get it in their heads to do something silly when they pass a rock along the cliffy terrain. Wondering what it would be like to see the rock roll down the hill, they stop their car and begin trying to push it off the hillside, then dig around it, use a donkey, and even damage their car trying to shove it when they get frustrated. The passive rock takes on the form of all the obstacles facing them in their lives, lives where the pains of middle age have set in. Each one seems to be going through a mid life crisis usually seen only in Western films, made all the more poignant by the fact that they are professionals living in Iran.
The director said that he didn't want people to read too much into the movie yet it was ripe for interpretation on many levels. Was the rock symbolic of the USA and USA influence that their terrorist brethren couldn't make move on? Or maybe it represented the uncaring universe that ignored their pleas for better lives (that they couldn't influence no matter what path they took to dislodge the boulder). They had problems with their women, their workplace, and even with their friendships as evidenced by how one of them reacts when the others seek to drive away from the rock in favor of getting back to their lives. That a couple of them were more interested in ongoing soccer matches then politics or other contemporary topics fueled the fires that the men were portrayed much like your typical westerner, though I suspect the emphasis on the cosmopolitan characters was a marked difference from the majority of the population given how they reacted to circumstances as stubbornly as they did.
It was also structured funny in how others passing the rock joined in to break it free, offering up a great many ideas as to the use of levers (without fulcrums) or combination approaches that pit man against nature on an admittedly far smaller scale then I'm used to in my movies. One of the women made some pointed comments about the rock in terms of gender that would have fit into films from just about anywhere else in the world, a tribute to the writing of the movie since the actors were largely not professionals. So, if the movie was strictly a story about four men and a rock, it provided a simple means of showing that the stereotypes of turban wearing, AK-47 carrying Iranians, are just one small group in a diverse country that we have been at odds with for the last thirty years. Speaking to that, I think it's assumed that most people in the region are dirt poor or have to hustle to stay alive in these trying times but it offers hope since people that want a similar lifestyle as we do are infinitely easier to persuade to work with us rather then force us to wipe out on wholesale levels. For providing another viewpoint of the citizens of the area alone the movie was worth a Rent It, though some would consider it even more worthy of their time and money (so adjust your personal ratings accordingly).
Picture: Men At Work was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as shot on DV for transference onto 35mm. There were few compression artifacts and the minimalist photography captured the sparse mountainous terrain really well, limiting the thematic elements far more readily to a man versus nature then would otherwise be the case had director Mani Haghighi been trying for a more ambitious flick. The composition was well handled and the various attempts to outline the story visually seemed to pop out at me more than a few times, well handled over all.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital enhanced Farsi with English subtitles. There wasn't a lot of separation on the track and the brief snippets of music seemed to add a note of interest given the western pop culture song I caught but this also lent itself to the nature of the experience. Some of the dialogue seemed forced or perhaps stilted but that could well have been the difficulties with translating some of the words into the English subtitles, something I as an anime reviewer finds common enough on releases from all over the world.
Extras: The best extra on almost all Film Movement titles is the bonus short film. In this case, the title was Hold Up, a 6 minute mini-drama from director Madelein Olnek that was shot in the USA. The story is about a couple of would be convenience store robbers who have a series of problems with the hold up, from the use of nude panty hose (that don't disguise very well), to knowing the cashier, to finding out secrets about each other during the attempt. There was enough there to flesh out for a full length flick but it was the right length for what was offered up all the same. There were also some trailers and some biographies for the main movie on the DVD, though not much detail for the curious.
Final Thoughts: Men At Work was a slightly dark comedy about four upper middle class friends from Iran who find themselves trying to push a large rock over the cliff in something of a political allegory. There was a lot to like about the presentation and the acting seemed largely professional, even when the writing seemed a bit disingenuous towards the themes presented. If you simply sit back and enjoy the movie rather then try to read too much into it, you'll find it was a cute offering that applied a far more subtle humor to the events then most of us are probably used to. Give it a look and understand that it was far more accessible a foreign film then most on the festival circuit, providing plenty to discuss if you watch it in a group.