Iran So Far Away
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Here we have a somewhat technically awkward and preachy movie with a good heart in the right place. In this case, the heart wins out, and I find myself remembering it with fondness. Maryam, which opens today at the Opera Plaza, seems to charge ahead full force, as if unaware or uncaring of its flaws.
Maryam begins with a slightly amateurish scene showing high school student Maryam (Mariam Parris) -- who goes by Mary -- in her media class. She and her classmates prepare to tape a video news show. Mary sits in the anchor chair next to the cutest boy in class, Jamie (Victor Jory), while the Barbie-esque Jill (Sabine Singh) manipulates the camera, subtly moving Mary out of frame.
Director Ramin Serry shoots all this with a shaky hand-held camera, emphasizing the awkwardness of the scene, which really doesn't need emphasizing. Mary tries hard to get the show on the road, but before anything can happen, her father, an Iranian-born doctor named Dr. Armin (Shaun Toub), barges into the classroom to take his daughter on an important errand.
Once outside the classroom, Mary accuses her father of sounding too Iranian, imitating his accent and ridiculing him. She's clearly embarrassed by his presence.
Welcome to the world of the teenager who wants nothing more than to be "normal," to fit in. But if Mary sticks out like a sore thumb now, just wait until they pick up her Iranian cousin Ali (David Ackert) at the airport.
It's 1979, Jimmy Carter is president, and most Americans have probably never heard of Iran. But before long, it will be a household word associated with evil and tyranny. Mary knows that the Ayatollah Khomeini has called the U.S. the "Great Satan," so imagine her surprise when the angry Ali sits at the dinner table, begins singing the Ayatollah's praises and damning the Shah as a liar and a thief.
Ali apparently carries a mysterious family-related grudge and burns with a political fire because of it.
Mary's father assigns her the job of driving Ali daily to the American university he's attending, but it turns out that Ali is less interested in learning than he is in joining whatever radical political groups he can find on campus. When the Shah shows up in a New York hospital, Ali decides to assassinate him.
And Mary's chances of fitting in grow smaller by the moment.
The film succeeds by allowing Mary to live and breathe as a full character, and gains big points with Parris' powerful performance in this centerpiece role. She's just as good with a teenage blow-off like "whatever" as she is at actually caring.
But the film fails in Ackert's performance as Ali. Director Serry doesn't trust that we'll understand Ali's passion without making him a humorless, constantly tense time bomb with his arms folded tight across his chest in every scene. He becomes a nuisance because of it.
Serry also includes a subplot about a misunderstanding between Dr. Armin and Ali's father that seems overcooked and a little too dramatically convenient.
But on the other hand, the ample use of stock news only enhances the movie's vivid mood. It also allows the clashing political views to settle side by side without feeling the need to resolve one or the other.
Through the good and the bad, the film emerges fully as a lucid portrait of a confused America on the verge of an unsteady new era. Maryam might have actually been filmed in 1979 and sent forward in a time machine. And thankfully we have wonderful Mary to take us by the hand and lead us through this long-ago world.
In the 20-odd years since, I've discovered a new Iran through its beautiful cinema and filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and I feel disgrace and sadness for everyone involved in hating back then.
Now George W. Bush has re-ignited the hatred, branding all of Iran as part of his "Axis of Evil" on the belief that a few bad apples have rotted the whole barrel.
Maryam takes this never-ending confusion and hatred, puts a human face on it, and finds shame, and finally, forgiveness.