No Bears

No Bears ★★★★

Jesus, when was the last year that yielded so many movies that are this hard to evaluate on a first try? I admired in No Bears the intricacy, the meta-ness, and the sustaining threads from Jafar Panahi's prior house-arrest films. I also felt frustrated at times by all three elements, and frustrated at myself for being frustrated, because what else is this man (and this specific artist) supposed to do under these conditions but loop back on himself, attempt a movie that in some ways exceeds his current grasp, and get a little lost in the eddies and ironies of meta-critique when he's been forced into such a meta-life?

More of No Bears adds up as I move away from it, even if my affect in the moment was equal parts agitated and absorbed, with some mournful curiosity about the version Panahi might have made of this story under freer conditions. Or would he have touched this story at all? Would he be quite so preoccupied with parochial tyrannies and backwater superstitions when the deepest threats to his livelihood and others seem to lie elsewhere? Is that a necessary deflection from the obviously "real" targets of Panahi's anger and sorrow, or is there plenty of real ire to go around, veiled and not? Is it a problem or a success if a movie so nakedly addressing Panahi's own impatience and mounting pessimism inspires feelings of impatience and mounting pessimism, even as it's also humbling, creative, timely, and boldly averse to self-martyrdom? Is it fair to lodge a complaint that the Zara/Bakhtiar plotline and the images through which it arrives never particularly convinced me, or moved me as much as they might, when No Bears points to a dozen reasons why that film within a film is operating under immovable constraints, and subject to some gratuitous pressure from Panahi's own temperaments and preoccupations?

I must sound like I didn't admire No Bears, and in truth I can't say I enjoyed actually watching it, but this isn't really the time for enjoyment—for Panahi, for Iran, maybe for any of us. No Bears is discomfitingly honest about that. There are bears everywhere. If you haven't run into any yet, lucky you (lucky me), but stay tuned. Surely you've caught their scent, at least. Even more surely, they've caught yours.

(Siskel Film Center, Chicago)

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