A German-Iranian co-production might sound like an unappealing cinematic curio, but this new film by writer, director and leading man Rafi Pitts is a work of universal simplicity and stunning execution.
Ali (Pitts) is a night watchman and ex-con whose one desire is to spend more time with his wife and daughter. When his loved ones are tragically killed in crossfire between police and demonstrators, Ali climbs onto a bluff overlooking the highway and drills bullets from his hunting rifle into the windscreen of a police car. His revenge exacted, he flees from the city to the forests where he feels at home.
Watching The Hunter, the comparison that comes inevitably to mind is A Short Film About Killing. Like Kieslowki’s masterpiece, this is a powerful, doom-laden story filled with pungent silences and told in a clipped, eccentric manner that distils it to its essence. Again like the great Polish director, Pitts has the knack of framing a shot in such a way that the elements within it spring into tension. Because of this you never feel at ease, even during the relatively becalmed early scenes as Ali puts in the hours at his unloved job and commutes along endless motorways whose oppressive, overhanging pressed-steel hoardings seem like embodiments of a life straitened by circumstance.
Where Pitts differs from Kieslowki is in his decision to step in front of the lens. Portraying a private man who shows little on the outside even when things are at their most tragic, his performance is all about someone dying from the inside out, poisoned by an inexpressible fury. When he receives the news of his wife’s demise from an obtuse police inspector, he makes no obvious reaction, but the muscles around his jaw slowly constrict until it looks like he’s going to swallow his own tongue. He becomes an old man before your very eyes.
And yet for all its moody subject matter The Hunter isn’t an oppressive film, and here is another difference with Kieslovski’s tale of murder and retribution. Partly this is to do with the impressive location shooting. Director of photography Mohammad Davudi does a fine job at capturing the eerie beauty of northern Iran, whether it be the humid, deeply-forested Gilan and Golan regions or the turbulent Caspian sea. There’s a particularly striking car chase through winding, fog-bound hill-passes that will have Hollywood location scouters sighing with envy. (Davudi has just as startling an eye for urban ugliness – witness the horrendous blanched-concrete stairwell leading to Ali’s apartment.) Of course, good cinematography doesn’t necessarily make a good movie, but between them Pitts and Davudi have managed to imbue each frame with a kind of far-sighted, tender resignation.
This is especially evident in the film’s superb last act – essentially a three hander between Ali and the two bickering policemen sent to capture him (a corrupt veteran and a youngster (Hassan Ghalenoi) on national service, whose view is ‘Who doesn’t have a problem with the police?’). Not to go into details, but an air almost of the Theatre of the Absurd creeps in as the weather and the forest combine to cut the trio down to size. It’s an unexpected change of tack, but one which Pitts the director handles with enormous feeling for mood, while Pitts the thespian delivers a tour-de-force of near-silent acting.
To be sure, The Hunter is bound to have special nuances for an Iranian audience – the death of Ali’s wife and child and the behaviour of the young policeman will strike nerves in ways which the western viewer can only surmise. But for the most part this is a story which transcends national boundaries – Ali’s lot not being so different from that of some blue-collar worker in a Midwest steel town, nor his remedy so very foreign. By telling a story that could happen almost anywhere, Pitts has become a figure to reckon with in world cinema.
Best actor: Rafi Pitts.
Watch it for: Fine acting and cinematography.