Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bahman Farmanara, Parivash Nazarieh, Mahtaj Nojoomi, Roya Nonahali, Reza Kianian, Hossein Kazbian, Vali Shirandami, Firouz Behjat Mohammadi
Written by: Bahman Farmanara
Directed by: Bahman Farmanara
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Farsi, with English subtitles
Running Time: 93
Date: 01/06/2001

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Dead Flowers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though today's Iranian filmmakers are among the world's most talented and prolific, they must submit their films for approval to a government board before filming can even begin. (Jafar Panahi's brilliant film The Circle was not approved and hence has not been released in its own country.)

Veteran director Bahman Farmanara, who began his career as a filmmaker around the same time as Abbas Kiarostami, spent the last two decades repeating this process over and over. He submitted script after script and saw them all rejected. Finally, in despair, he wrote a script about a film director who couldn't get a script approved and accepts a job making a documentary for Japanese television about Iranian funeral ceremonies. And Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine was approved.

To punch the irony even further home, Farmanara decided to play the filmmaker himself with whom he shares the same first name. Like Woody Allen, the Farmanara character is obsessed with death, and at age 55 and in poor health, his own death in particular. And though I admired Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, it's permeated -- soaked through -- with death.

The movie opens with an episode titled "A Bad Day." Farmanara gives a ride to a woman with a baby, presumably running away from her violent husband. After he lets her off, he realizes that she's left her baby, dead, in the back seat of his car. Later, at the funeral home, he discovers that his burial plot, next to his deceased wife's, has been given to someone else.

Farmanara plays himself as a sleepy-eyed, dumpy lump, saturated with sadness over his dead wife. As research for his documentary, he actually prepares for his own funeral. One lovely scene has him visiting a shop full of colorful funeral lamps. Farmanara makes the shop owner turn them all on, lighting up the scene like an expensive Hollywood musical. (Yet death is still right there in the midst of it.)

Friends occasionally meet with Farmanara to try and snap him out of his slump, and a doctor tells him to quit smoking. He listens to them all politely, but ignores them, going right back to his old ways. After all, he's going to be dead soon, anyway. Why change?

Though the film is reasonably accomplished, Farmanara approaches it from a kind of observational middle ground. On one end, it could have used a dash of youth and humor, and on the other, a melancholy slowness like the 92-year old Manoel de Oliveira does so beautifully. The film also lacks an assured mastery like Farmanara's fellow countrymen (Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Panahi) possess. His camera seems more interested in his own face than in its surroundings. A bit of spacial perspective might have worked wonders.

But it's Farmanara himself that brings Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine to life. Though he's not as charismatic as other movie sad sacks (Zero Mostel, for example), our sympathy still sticks to him like shavings to a magnet. We don't want him to die, but we can understand his sadness and his yearning for an end. He embodies a kind of inner peace, an acceptance of his fate. It's an accomplished portrait of a life's final curtain.

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