The Japanese may have invented the haiku, but Iranians perfected its cinematic equivalent: a kind of film that plays almost like a poem — short, sweet and disarmingly profound in its simplicity. Jafar Panahi, director of “The White Balloon,” is the master; Majid Majidi (“Children of Heaven”) a close second. While this pared-down, less-is-more approach hardly applies to all of Iranian cinema, these seemingly elemental Persian narratives have a way of resonating worldwide. It is this discipline that director Hadi Mohaghegh practices with “Scent of Wind,” a film whose title alone evokes the great Abbas Kiarostami (“A Taste of Cherry”), and whose subject could be described with just one word: kindness.
Returning to the Busan Film Festival seven years after earning two major prizes for his previous feature, “Immortal,” Mohaghegh casts himself as the film’s main character, Eskandari, an electrician called out to inspect an issue with a transformer bringing power to a remote home — practically a ruin, really, with crumbling stone walls and grass growing on its roof. Eskandari doesn’t make his entrance until several scenes into the movie. Before that, the film focuses on the man (Mohammad Eghbali) who lives in this ramshackle home, where he tends to a bedridden boy. The man’s legs are lame, folded beneath him, and walking is a labored process that requires dragging each foot forward a step at a time with his hands.
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Contacting the electricity company is a feat unto itself, which entails traveling a kilometer or more just to borrow a phone. But then, this man’s work is arduous — it consists of retrieving from a steep rock face special plants that can be ground into medicine and sold to his neighbors — and yet, he does the job without complaint. If this sounds miserable, think again. Told in the neorealist tradition, where nonprofessional actors are naturalistically observed in real environments, “Scent of Wind” is a film about kindness, and that tendency, however rare in the wider world, informs every interaction.
There are no villains here, only decent people, willing to help one another in ways that surprise and inspire. The disabled man pulls himself to the nearest home, and there he finds an elderly couple sitting silently on stones. The movie strikes a patient, Zen-like pace. In this scene, for instance, the old man and his wife sit on opposite sides of the frame; his hands tremble as he tries to thread a needle. The disabled man appears between them in the distance, crawling toward them. He asks to borrow a mobile phone, but they have none, and so he turns to leave. It will be a long walk to reach the next person. Now the old man has a request: Could he help thread the needle? Without hesitation, the visitor agrees, and the scene continues for several more minutes until the task is complete.
It is the same when Eskandari appears. He is professional (this alone seems like some kind of miracle to anyone who’s dealt with utility workers in countries around the world), and he’s empathetic to boot. Few words are exchanged between Eskandari and the disabled man, and yet, the former makes repairing the transformer as important and personal a mission as crossing Middle-earth to Mordor was for the hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings.” The setbacks are many. He needs a special insulator to restore the power, and that means driving to a nearby town. His pickup stalls while traversing a stream, and he spins his tires in vain for a time, then walks for miles to find someone with a tractor who can pull the auto free.
After all that, it turns out Eskandari misunderstood the dispatcher, and he had the wrong town. But he can’t turn down the blind man he meets there — another rural character who typically manages alone, but is grateful for others’ generosity when it comes — and agrees to drive him to a date down the road, stopping to collect a bouquet of flowers along the way. Gestures like this might seem minor compared with whatever plots you’re accustomed to watching, but rest assured, they will linger in your mind far longer. On its face, kindness may not seem inherently dramatic. Conflict, after all, is what fuels the vast majority of world cinema. And yet, there’s adversity here too. Eskandari’s car breaks down, and a man passing by on a donkey lends a hand without hesitation. At one point, Eskandari must cross a raging river to reach the part he needs, and we watch as he’s nearly swept away by the current.
When the job cannot be done in a single day, he rents a generator with what might be his own funds. And touched by the situation he sees in the customer’s home — where the bedridden boy lies almost directly on the floor — he takes it upon himself to buy a special mattress. Name another narrative in which people behave like this, by instinct, with nothing to gain from it themselves.
At the Busan Film Festival, where the movie premiered, the catalog states, “In a world that seems devoid of goodness, ‘Scent of Wind’ is a film that reaffirms our faith in humanity.” To be clear: The world is not devoid of goodness, but it’s rare enough to witness on screen that the film uplifts and inspires in a way that never feels false or manipulative, even in those few instances when Mohammad Darabifar’s score kicks in. The region, identified as Cham-e Ali Mardaan, supplies beauty to every frame via landscapes that look like matte paintings. Iran is not alone in giving the world such films (“Scent of Wind” also occasionally recalls the Macedonian documentary “Honeyland”), but it’s encouraging to see the tradition of Panahi, Majidi and Kiarostami alive and well at a time when the country itself is facing such hardship.
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