Border Café (Café Transit, 2005)

Director: Kambuzia Partovi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, women living in the country’s legally mandated Islamic society have had to walk a tightrope. Forced out of their western attire and under the veil and the thumbs of the men in their lives, Iranian women have labored to find some measure of independence and identity. Their painful struggle has been captured in best-selling books, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran by English literature professor and author Azar Nafisi, and in films such as The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam, 2000), the debut film of Marzieh Meshkini, wife of renowned Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

One angry, feminist film that affected me deeply was The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Kambuzia Partovi. Now we have Border Café, Partovi’s ninth outing in the director’s chair and his first for adult audiences. It’s an assured, well-observed film that avoids agitprop overtones while nonetheless showing clearly the obstacles Iranian women must navigate just to find some breathing room.

The structure of the story is slightly confusing. It uses reminiscences of people who have beeen touched by Reyhan (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Partovi’s wife), the main character, to suggest what a remarkable women she is. It almost sounds as though Reyhan has died. Whatever has happened, these people feel sure they will never see her again. Slowly, her story unfolds.

Reyhan is a recent widow with two children who is urged by her brother-in-law Nasser (Parviz Parastui) to become his second wife. He wants to take care of her and her children in an honorable fashion, and her lengthy mourning is starting to embarrass the family. Reyhan is not interested in Nasser or remarriage. She came to Iran to marry her now-dead husband, and feels no regard for the villagers or their opinions. Instead, she decides to reopen her husband’s roadside café, employing his former staff and doing the cooking herself.

Reyhan cleans up the café and hangs out her shingle for business, hoping that some of her husband’s former clientele will be attracted back. They are. Reyhan is an excellent cook, and news that the café is back and better than ever spreads among the international community of truck drivers who pass through. One trucker, a Greek named Zakariyo (Nikos Papadopoulos), comes into the café for a table and tea, but always brings a can of food with him to eat. Reyhan, who must stay in the kitchen because the law forbids her to mix in public with men who are not of her family, watches him through the kitchen service window. She asks the waiter to bring his plate to her so she can see what he is eating. The next time Zakariyo comes to the café, she sends out a plate with her version of his food on it. It is delicious, and from that moment on Zakariyo becomes a frequent visitor and occasional companion.

Reyhan’s success not only humiliates Nasser because she is having too public a life, but also is hurting the business at his own café. He determines to close her down, and because he owns the building, he has his way. The family Reyhan had built in her café disperses, taking us back to the reminiscences that started the film. But Reyhan hasn’t died. She buys the restaurant across the street from Nasser’s place. The worried look in his eyes tells us the rest of the story. Reyhan will endure.

Reyhan is a kind soul to whom people like Zakariyo respond. Moved by her attempts to make him feel a bit of home while on the road, Zakariyo tries to court Reyhan, in Greek. In another subplot, a Russian girl named Svieta (Svieta Mikalishina) washes up in the rain one night, and Reyhan takes her in on what becomes a permanent basis. A very moving scene has Reyhan and Svieta in the yard one day. Reyhan reveals her pain over the loss of her husband and her own homeland. Svieta does not understand a word. Svieta responses in Russian with her own pain. Although neither woman understands the other, both are in tears, communicating through the heart. These moments confirm what a waste it is to try to lock Reyhan away from the world and reveal what Islamic men fear so much—the allure of the female. Although Orfani plays Reyhan as a modest women who is constantly pulling her chador closer around her face, she won’t be held down.

With Border Café, Partovi gives us a rich look from the ground level at the lives of ordinary people in Iran and the way Islamic law plays out in everyday life. It’s not as ironclad as I had imagined, but nonetheless provides women with little wiggle room. I am grateful to Partovi for opening the doors wider on Iran and breaking new ground as the tradition of great Iranian filmmaking moves forward. l

  • Mark spoke:
    17th/05/2006 to 12:53 am

    Hi Marilyn,Your neighbor from Rogers Park here 🙂 I added “The Circle” to my NetFlix list. Iranian movies are some of the best I’ve seen. I loved “The White Ballon.” I think we could use more insight into the lives of Persians considering the political climate.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/05/2006 to 1:34 pm

    Howdy, neighbor. I really hope you like “The Circle.” I’d also recommend “Children of Heaven,” a really wonderful children’s film by the same people who did “The White Balloon.” Kiarostami’s films also are generally flawless (except for “ABC Africa”).

  • Mark spoke:
    19th/05/2006 to 8:22 pm

    Oh yes, I already own Children of heaven on DVD 🙂

  • Lady Wakasa spoke:
    22nd/05/2006 to 8:59 pm

    I’d also check out Sib (The Apple), by Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen) – done when she was 18. It’s about a narrowminded father and two twins finally getting their freedom (not to mention the annoying next-door neighbor girl). No politics – just a story of people. Some make mistakes, some learn about life. Obviously something that could very well happen here.There’s been a lot of wonderful stuff coming out of Iranian the last 10-20 years. It’s a shame that it doesn’t get more notice.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/05/2006 to 9:12 am

    Hi Lady, and thanks for the recommendation. Iranian films certainly get a lot of attention among cineastes, but the general public doesn’t “get” foreign films in general. If you haven’t seen Kiarostami’s films, particularly “Close-up,” do so. You’re in for a big, big treat.

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