Lately I've been listening religiously to World Have Your Say on National Public Radio. It's a BBC radio show that deals with worldwide issues, inviting the international audience to comment. I'm so happy to have access to this kind of information; it's like a lemon-scented scrub straight through the greasy grime of brain-dead xenophobia that is American media and culture. It is for beginners what World Cinema is to skilled players.
Take Café Setareh, writer/ director Saman Moghadam's examination of the lives of three modern Iranian women, for example. A skilled and assured piece of filmmaking, Setareh follows the three through an intertwining plot that often overlaps itself, Rashomon or Memento style, giving three perspectives on a small group of players. Fariba runs the titular café while her husband Fereidoon generally acts like a lazy, drunken buffoon, greatly hindering her life and the business. This first of the three internal stories meshes with that of Salome, engaged to Ebi, a sweet and sensitive man who ultimately fails to hide his more stereotypical male traits. Ebi is friends with Khosro, another of the new generation of Iranian men, who has a pivotal run-in with his dad, Fereidoon. Finally, the bittersweet tale of Molook, a middle-aged woman with a crush on Khosro and TV reception problems. Her wayward satellite dish may or may not bring her a happy ending.
Moghadam is in no hurry to let these simple stories uncoil, instead letting a carefully measured pace focus the spotlight on his characters' friction within traditional Iranian roles. Notably, the women display no reticence in taking charge, particularly Fariba, in running the café, dealing with her husband and putting vendors in their places. Molook and Salome both approach relationships proactively, (if not sometimes in a sneaky manner) expressing desires in a way Western audiences might think would be unheard of in Iran. The men, too, seem mostly to be eager to exchange old habits for a new way of being, with Fereidoon and a pool table vendor being the exceptions.
This window into modern Iran echoes the movie's excellent opening shot, a languid take of the pool table as seen through a fish tank full of lazily floating goldfish. The shot sets a high tone for the film, a tone thankfully maintained throughout, as characters and occurrences are gradually revealed, slowly, on the currents and eddies of the day. And much as the shot of the goldfish allows the viewer time to interpret without aid what is seen, so too does Moghadam leave any pedantic tone behind. His modern Iran is not at the service of any grand statement or agenda, it is simply there for us to observe and absorb.
Café Setareh comes in a scrappy 16 x 9 transfer that isn't incredibly sharp or nuanced in color, and has a decent helping of film grain and damage. None of these detractors are too obtrusive, however, but it places this DVD experience on the level of a VHS cassette. One suspects that this may be down to the state of the Iranian film industry, even though word on the street is that Iran has a well-regarded tradition in film. An IRmovies watermark appears onscreen throughout, though I'm not sure if this is a screener-only feature or is included on the retail release. Regardless, it's an unnecessary distraction.
Audio is unremarkable. The screener lacked packaging, so it's unclear what, if any processing was involved. As a foreign movie with subtitles, a super-strong audio track might not be necessary. There isn't a clearly evident attempt at elaborate sound-design, except for the inclusion of a celebratory final song, and the subtitles obviate the need to precisely hear every scrap of dialog, so I wasn't disturbed by the substandard audio.
Extras are slight, three items total, each of which clocks in at about 3 - 4 minutes. A music video includes scenes from the movie, the theatrical trailer has no subtitles and different sounding audio, while finally a photo gallery slideshow finishes things off in unremarkable fashion. A fine movie such as this deserves more extras, and ones that provide deeper insight.
Café Setareh won't appeal to those who are disinclined towards World Cinema, obviously. In addition to subtitles and a demand that the viewing audience can think, the pacing is slow and at times things are hard to follow. Also, there are no huge explosions or things that turn into robots. Those who can hack it, and want to, will find a thoughtful, measured examination of a small section of a culture that will seem way more familiar than bargained for. While the lackluster DVD presentation relegates this disc to Rent status, adventurous cinematic travelers will enjoy the subtle treasures on plain display in Café Setareh.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com