The short, ominous video clip that opens “3 Faces,” an intelligent and moving drama from the Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi, is both an expression of love for cinema and an assertion of its boundless potential for mystery.
The video shows a young woman named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) tearfully addressing the camera, explaining that her family is holding her back from pursuing her lifelong dream of attending a conservatory in Tehran and becoming an actress. Her voice moving from despair to reproof, she rails against those who have ignored her cries for help and places a noose around her neck shortly before the video comes to an abrupt end.
The video, we learn, was sent under mysterious circumstances to an actress named Behnaz Jafari, who is now anxiously traveling to Marziyeh’s village to investigate further. She’s riding in an SUV whose driver, it turns out, is Panahi himself. The use of their real names, if not necessarily their actual identities, is hardly an accident: Audiences well versed in Iranian cinema may recognize Jafari as one of the industry’s leading performers, and they will almost certainly know Panahi as one of its most revered auteurs and dissident artists.
And so before even five minutes have elapsed, “3 Faces” is awash in epistemological riddles, in questions of who or what is real or fake. When Jafari asks, “What if it’s a prank, Mr. Panahi?” she is clearly referring to the video, a disturbing record of suicide that may have been fabricated for attention. But her inquiry sends tongue-in-cheek reverberations throughout the whole movie, which weaves elements of fiction and nonfiction into a fluid, imaginative and heroically unclassifiable work of art.
Panahi may not be an outright prankster. But even before he was arrested in 2010, charged with making anti-Islamic propaganda and forbidden to leave Iran, he was a filmmaker with a playful approach to form and a gift for thematic sleight-of-hand. His 2007 masterpiece, “Offside,” an essay on gender-based oppression disguised as a soccer comedy, is one of his most politically bracing and purely entertaining movies — a reminder that off-center narrative strategies and a sly sense of humor are useful armaments for any filmmaker working under an oppressive regime.
And Panahi, although ostensibly serving out a 20-year ban from filmmaking, has been more resourceful and industrious than ever. In each of his three previous pictures — “This Is Not a Film” (2011), “Closed Curtain” (2013) and “Taxi” (2015) — he has played a loosely fictionalized version of himself, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely referencing the circumstances that have severely affected but not derailed his calling.
The stirring, empathetic “3 Faces,” which won a screenplay prize at Cannes last year, may signal the creative maturation of his post-2010 phase, in part because the director’s on-screen presence this time is pointedly that of a guide and a witness rather than a subject. He and Jafari do have some engrossing early arguments in the SUV; like his late countryman and former mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi effortlessly turns the inside of a car into an intimate refuge from the world looming just outside its windows.
But in time he aims the camera outward, taking in this unfamiliar landscape and the people whose houses dot its rocky, hilly terrain. He deflects the audience’s sympathy away from himself and, notably, toward the women in his story, rekindling the instinctive, forthright feminism that has informed much of his work since his 2000 art-house hit, “The Circle.”
After a few hours spent navigating dusty, winding roads, Jafari and Panahi arrive in a northwest Iranian village called Saran, which is populated mostly by Azerbaijani Turks. Marziyeh has been missing for three days, though her family seems less concerned for her safety than they are about their loss of honor in the event of a scandal. The young woman had a reputation for stirring up trouble, but her only real crime appears to have been her desire to go to school and become an actress like Jafari, who is made freshly aware of the curious mix of awe and contempt often reserved for “entertainers” such as herself.
She is also reminded, perhaps needlessly, of the daily frustrations that come with being a woman in Iran, though the personal and professional freedom she enjoys in her own life and work is thrown into stark relief by Marziyeh’s plight. The dynamics at play within the Marziyeh’s family — a sympathetic mother and sister, an incoherently hot-headed brother, a father off attempting damage control — speaks volumes about a village culture mired in rigidly traditionalist ways of thinking and deeply uncomfortable with even the suggestion of female autonomy.
As day fades into night and answers gradually emerge, “3 Faces” becomes a politically charged picaresque, a series of droll, superficially amusing encounters that bring Panahi and Jafari into a deeper understanding of what may have spurred Marziyeh’s actions. The two visitors stumble upon an old woman (Fatemeh Ismaeilnejad) performing a ritual of penance by lying in an open grave in the local cemetery. Totems of male virility abound — a bull famed for its reproductive prowess, an infant boy’s foreskin offered to Jafari as a singularly bizarre present — in a town where women are expected to be neither seen nor heard.
One woman who is heard but only briefly seen is Shahrzad, a former movie actress, singer and dancer who now lives alone on the village’s outskirts; shunned by most of her neighbors, she’s their resident Norma Desmond, in reputation if not in truth. She is also the movie’s third face, the third actress to grace this story, after Marziyeh and Jafari. To describe “3 Faces” as a multi-generational portrait would not be entirely inaccurate, though it would risk divesting the movie of its quotidian poetry, its deep reserves of mystery and its rich rewards for an open-hearted audience. Sometimes, as these characters understand by journey’s end, it’s important to go and discover the truth for yourself.
Farsi and Azeri Turkish dialogue with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes