For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, filmmaker Bahman Farmanara is thought of in some circles as the Iranian Woody Allen. Assuming that such a credential can even be imagined, the comparison seems to rest entirely on this one semi-autobiographical film, which is, if anything, even more obsessed with death than Allen is when in full morbid mode. Indeed, Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine made me think of Farmanara more as the Gustav Mahler of filmmakers than anything else.
The movie tells the story of Bahman Farjami (played by Farmanara), a filmmaker who the Iranian government hasn’t allowed to make movies for 24 years, but is sneaking past the government interdiction by making a documentary on Iranian funeral rites for Japanese TV. It’s a work-for-hire project that becomes more and more of a meditation on its maker’s mortality. Farjami is obviously a nom de screen for Farmanara, who hadn’t been allowed to make a film in 22 years by this same government, having only a pile of rejected scripts to show for his attempts during those years.
In interviews, Farmanara — apparently in all seriousness — stated his belief that the only reason the authorities OK’d Smell of Camphor was that it dealt with the filmmaker’s death, an idea that pleased the government. It isn’t merely the documentary that’s about death, either.
Death pervades the entire film, which begins with a section understatedly entitled, “A Bad Day.” The day is gloomy enough to begin with, since it’s the anniversary of the death of the filmmaker’s wife, but it goes downhill from there.
On his way to the cemetery, the filmmaker picks up a woman carrying a stillborn child. At his wife’s gravesite, he discovers that someone has been buried in the adjoining plot that he’d bought for himself. (People keep suggesting that maybe he bought a “two-level plot,” prompting him to ask if such are “all the rage these days.”) On his way from the cemetery, a funeral procession passes him — just as he discovers that his hitchhiker has left him a surprise in the backseat. Not long afterwards, he learns that his brother-in-law is missing. A bad day, indeed.
The bulk of the film mixes Farjami’s experiences with the film he’s making, not in the least because his own mortality keeps intruding in a series of mild — and not so mild — heart attacks. (When a doctor instructs him to change his habits and quit smoking, he throws the diagnosis into a trashcan and, upon leaving the hospital, lights a cigarette.) This theme finds its full expression in the depiction of his funeral — and what he learns from it, which at first may seem at odds with the rest of the movie, but has actually been set up from the first scene.
The film is by turns accomplished and clunky — part of which is probably the result of its obviously tiny budget — but it’s never less than fascinating, and not really like any other film, which makes it just that much more compelling.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Smell of Jasmine, Fragrance of Camphor on Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street, follow to Lake Pointe Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]