As is typical of his filmography, Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces” begins without a “based on a true story” disclaimer. This latest effort from the beleaguered director once again continues his penchant for palpable realism, offering a fervent critique of his native Iran. As pointed as ever, “3 Faces” poignantly examines the tensions within a society where art and culture don’t always make a perfect match.
“3 Faces” features Panahi as himself, but the focal character is an aspiring actress named Marziyeh Rezaei whose artistic ambitions puts her at odds with her society’s expectations. Indeed, the opening scene is effectively a filmed suicide note, in which she explains her despair at being forbidden to attend a drama conservatory in Tehran. But though Rezaei’s confession ends with an apparent suicide attempt, she leaves no trace of the act. When this video eventually lands in the hands of Panahi and a successful actress – Behnaz Jafari, playing herself – the duo decides to venture to the girl’s rural village in search of answers.
While the mountainous terrain provides its fair share of twists and turns throughout the central quest, the mystery behind Rezaei’s disappearance is solved more straightforwardly. Yet Panahi’s script is hardly uneventful. Indeed, while the local residents are mostly oblivious to her whereabouts, each encounter enriches the viewer’s understanding of this world and its unusual customs. From a makeshift traffic management system for the narrow roads to bizarre rituals surrounding circumcision, the film is rich in local texture.
What also emerges is a fascinating revelation of cinema’s impact on these communities. Despite a pervading disdain being shown towards “empty-headed” entertainers, there is still an adoration towards celebrities which reaches nearly comical proportions. Indeed, Jafari is greeted with particular enthusiasm upon her arrival in the villages.
Notably, Jafari also becomes integral to Rezaei’s story, despite bearing no relation to the troubled actress. Underneath the mystery plot, the film is ultimately an examination of women’s place in Iranian society. In this regard, Jafari delivers a deeply felt, thoughtful performance. Masterfully conveying her character’s complex inner conflict; she wrestles with her potentially dangerous influence as a role model for young girls. And as we witness the antagonism shown towards female education and careerist desires, Panahi allows audiences to empathize with Jafari and Rezaei’s plight easily.
Due to Panahi’s realist style, “3 Faces” understandingly offers no easy solutions to this profoundly entrenched patriarchy. But while this may prove unsatisfying, the film ultimately elicits feelings of measured hope. Through a touching final shot, Panahi points towards the power of female solidarity in charting a more optimistic course for the future.
“3 Faces” opens in select theaters March 8.