Half Moon Review
The use of symbolism and metaphor is not unusual in Iranian cinema, most directors, faced with tough censorship laws, finding that they have to resort to other means in order to depict the reality of the situation in their country, the loss of liberties and the treatment of women. Depicting the difficulties of living in the Kurdish communities on the dangerous borders between Iran and Iraq, the films of Bahman Ghobadi fit very much into this tradition, with even the metaphorical title of his latest film Half Moon referring to the present day circumstances in the region following the fall of Saddam Hussein from power, an event that has allowed some light to shine on the people, but has left other aspects of their lives still remaining in the shadows.
For Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari), a once famous Kurdish singer in the region, it seems time however to step back into the light. Despite bad omens, ominous warnings and hallucinatory visions of death, Mamo feels that he has an important journey to make. With a borrowed bus and the assistance of his driver Kako, he gathers together the members of his band, all of them his sons, some of them having to be persuaded by force, and sets off towards the Iraqi border to pick up a female singer Hesho (Hedye Tehrani). It’s a dangerous journey that has many risks in a dangerous region still heavily patrolled by border troops, but Mamo wants to play a concert as a grand gesture, an expression of freedom from the oppression that has been suffered under the years of Saddam.
The subject, the landscape and the treatment are all familiar ones for Bahman Ghobadi whose films often confront the fate of the Kurdish people on both sides of the Iran/Iraq border, caught up in the political problems between the two countries. Set in such a politically contentious area and using surreal imagery, the director is not beyond making grand gestures himself, hitting points home hard to the extent that they can border on mawkishness, particularly when those earlier films (A Time For Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly) deal with the troubled lives of young children in the region. The underlying sentiments and the reality of the circumstances of these people’s everyday lives come through however, keeping the films and their meaning firmly anchored in reality. More than just being a means of avoiding censorship, the surreal imagery employed here by the director is often the only means by which the extraordinary conditions of his characters lives can be expressed. This leads to a number of astonishing scenes, the most striking of which is the colourful sight of a village comprised entirely of 1334 exiled women singing in unison as one celestial voice, representing the fact that women in Iran are banned from singing in public, except as part of a group and only to an audience of women.
There is also familiarity in Half Moon’s resemblance to Ghobadi’s 2002 film Marooned in Iraq (better served by its alternative title of Songs of my Motherland), where a master musician and his two sons go to Iraq to look for his ex-wife who has fled across the border following the ban on public performances by women singers. Reworking this idea for the New Crowned Hope initiative for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart in 2006 (other films in the series include Syndromes and a Century, Daratt, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone and Opera Jawa) in Half Moon, Ghobadi manages to also channel some of the eccentric humour and the effervescent character of Mozart into the film. It can be slightly strange, slow and tough going in places, but at times the film’s fairytale quality and its characterisation of figures like Half-Moon (Golshifteh Farahani) give it the feel of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Momo’s quest to liberate a captive woman and put on a concert in spite of the ruthless actions of the Iranian border troops recalls Tamino’s struggle to find a true path between the authoritarian rule of Sarastro’s dark forces and the machinations of the Queen of the Night, caught in the half-moon shadow between enlightenment and obscurantism. Most significantly and successfully however Ghobadi pays tribute to the power of music, aligning its expression to the sanctity of individual liberty.
Half Moon is released in the UK by ICA Films. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Typically, the best description for an ICA Films DVD release is “basic” and that just about sums up the quality here. On a basic level, the transfer meets minimum requirements, with an anamorphic transfer and the film presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and even including optional rather than fixed subtitles. The quality of the print itself is also good, the image clean and detail reasonably good if tending towards softness. Colours aren’t as vivid as you might expect, but they do stand out where they should such as in the scene of the village of women and the essential tone and character of the landscape and costumes seems accurate. Darker night-time scenes also show reasonably good tone and detail, with deep blacks that hold up pretty well. Since there are no extra features on the DVD at all, a single layer disc proves adequate for the film, though a faint flicker of macroblocking artefacts can occasionally be detected and there is some edge-enhancement applied. Not a high spec transfer then, but one that at least presents the film reasonably well.
The audio track is basic Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and it’s more than adequate for the purposes of the film. Dialogue is clear, while the music and singing has a pleasing tone.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. They sit on the border part in and part outside in the border below the image frame.
There are no extra features. A simple menu give options to play the film or go to a basic scene selection.
You could look at Half Moon and think that Bahman Ghobadi hasn’t really moved on much further from his previous films, examining the extraordinary circumstances of the Kurd people and how their lives are affected by the flux of political events which drive them from one part of a dangerous mountain border region to another, but the point of Half Moon is precisely to show that things haven’t changed that much, and that the half moon of change still casts a shadow over the region. The director again however manages to find an unexpected humour and surrealism in a situation reminiscent of Emir Kusturica, infused with beauty, music, life and death. If you just want to see the film and aren’t particularly bothered about extra features, the ICA Films release serves its purpose very well.