Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi) (Iran, 2001) *** 1/2
Written, directed, co-produced by Babak Payami, based on an idea by Moshen Makhmalbaf. Photography, Farzat Jodat. Editing, Babak Karimi. Music, Michael Galasso. Exec. producer, Hooshangh Payami. Cast: Nassim Abdi (girl), Cyrus Ab (soldier), et al. A Sony Classics release. 105 minutes. In Farsi with English subtitles. Rated G.
Alerting all movie connoisseurs! The second feature by Babak Payami renews my hopes that behind the huge, depressing army of commercial movies there is, worldwide, a platoon of intelligent, original, chances-taking, creative people for whom cinema is an art and not a Godzilla of low I.Q. productions aimed at the masses that in Russian are called "nyekulturny" (uncultured.)
In recent and no-so-recent times, Iranian cinema has turned out a force to contend with --in fact a darling of solidly informed publics as well as professional critics the world over. Mr. Payami was born in Tehran in 1966, spent much of his youth in Canada, studied cinema theory and history-- not filmmaking-- at the University (Toronto), returned to Iran in 1998.
"Secret Ballot" is slow, but rewardingly so, and far from watching wallpaper dry. It was filmed entirely in Kish, a resort island in the Persian Gulf, but nowhere in the movie is this stated. In fact the setting looks like a semi-barren landscape that could be a mainland or an island. There, by the sea, on a desert beach, two soldiers stand guard against smugglers. You almost have to guess this as Mr. Payami does not give explanations. An airplane parachutes a large, mysterious crate. It turns out to contain a ballot box. It is Election Day.
There arrives a young woman, a government official charged with collecting votes. One of the soldiers is given the job of driving the lady around, which he does reluctantly as the envoy is female. The vehicle is an army jeep closer to those of the German army in World War II than to the familiar U.S. models. It huffs and puffs and makes a high decibel racket. The no-name woman is totally dedicated to her duty, a true believer in the importance of voting, a tireless worker, rather voluble and certainly not submissive. Chador and all, she's clearly a liberated woman, a "city gal" says the soldier.
The couple-by-necessity scour the land to find eligible voters among the sparse locals. The trek starts in a desert and gradually moves to somewhat greener places. It is educational for both parties. They (and we) encounter a variety of people (all peasants) and situations. It is as instructive to the two roamers as it is to the audience. It may be serious business, but natural, sly, or tongue-in-cheek humor keeps emerging in this realistic, ethnographic, patriotic work that is quite outspoken. It stresses isolation, not poverty. And it is not bound by politically correct limitations. The city girl, commenting on the minimum voting age, says of a local "She can marry at 12 but she cannot vote."
Director Payami is here a minimalist, but this does not engender boredom. On the contrary, without hammering points he lets a small spectrum of sociopolitical stances emerge naturally, and, I repeat, often humorously. For instance, there is traffic light in the middle of a desert. Worse yet, it is stuck on red.
He also has a pronounced penchant for long shots (avoiding close-ups in favor of vistas, framing people and sights at a distance) and long takes (shooting scenes continuously for three minutes or more.) This should, in theory, cause impatience in the viewers, but in the context of this movie it is often fascinating and decidedly mood-setting.
A film like no other.