3 Faces ★★★

St. Louis International Film Festival Screening #1

I don't have much experience with Jafar Panahi. The first and only film of his that I've seen is 'Offside' (2006), which I remember being quite good, modestly political, and leaning a bit more to the serious side of serio-comic. '3 Faces' is looser, a rambling kind-of-road movie with a keen but *very* dry sense of humor. It's quite reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch in his 'Down By Law' and 'Night on Earth' vein, which coming from me is high praise.

The humor is so low-key, in fact, that it’s initially difficult to tell what sort of film this is going to turn out to be. For the first 40 minutes or so this feels like it could go in a *very* different, chilly, blood-spurty Michael Haneke sort of direction. The story starts out with some nasty '8MM" meets '13 Reasons Why' business, as a film director and an actress try to track down a mysterious teen girl from the middle of nowhere who may or may not have filmed her own suicide and texted the video to them, unsolicited.

After a while it starts to become clear that the film isn’t a thriller but a dramedy. The long, panning shots and POV sequences are arch, rather than menacing. The scruffy village weirdos the protagonists meet during their search aren't sinister, but actually kind of quirky and endearing — if a bit disarmingly provincial. This is one of those features that doesn't have a plot so much as a sequence of digressive encounters with oddballs. The whole thing feels at once totally realistic and totally surreal. Again, a lot of Jarmusch in there.

Panahi never completely banishes that early sense of unease, however. There's always some implied threat lurking in the dialog or the frame -- a knife, a fire, a rock in a seething hothead’s hand -- but that vague anxiousness is partly what makes it funny. I'm still trying to suss out all the things Panahi is potentially trying to say about tradition and modernity, some of which may sail over my head as a non-Iranian. However, this was still a weird, amusing little pleasure.