Friday, June 13, 2014

Movie Review: Manuscripts Don't Burn

Manuscripts Don’t Burn
Directed by: Mohammad Rasoulof
Written by: Mohammad Rasoulof

Whatever problems Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn has, you cannot help but admire Rasoulof for making the film at all. In 2010, alongside fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi, he was banned from filmmaking and sentenced to a term in jail apparently for “filming without permit” – but in reality, it was for supporting the wrong candidate in the Iranian “elections”. He is banned from filmmaking in Iran, and is waiting to serve his one year jail sentence (originally it was six years) – and yet, while waiting do that, he made this film. Rasoulof is the only person credited on the movie – the cast and crew have to remain anonymous for fear of persecution in Iran. The film was smuggled out of Iran to play at the Cannes Film Festival – and has since played other film festivals – including Toronto (which is where I saw it). This angry film may have some flaws, but you have to admire Rasoulof for making it at all.

The film opens with two hit men carrying out a job, and then circles back to show how they got there. The film is basically about an intellectual who has written his memoirs – which includes a portion where he details the Iranian government’s plan to kill him, and over 20 other intellectuals, by hiring a killer to drive the bus they are riding off a cliff. The intellectual threatens the government – they either lift the ban on his travelling outside of the country, so he can spend the last few years of his life with his daughter, or else he publishes the memoir, and the truth comes out. He tells them that if anything happens to him, he has already passed off two copies of his memoirs, and they will still be published. Not to be deterred, the government figures out what two people have the copies – and do whatever is necessary to get them back.

The first hour of the movie is slowly paced, and rather repetitive – with too many scenes that essentially set out to accomplish the same goals. The action switches back and forth between the two hit men, and the two intellectuals who have copies of their friend’s memoir. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that one of the two hit men is portrayed sympathetically – he has a very sick son who requires an operation, and he is constantly checking his bank balance to see if his promised payment has come through yet so his son can get the treatment he needs. He knows what he is doing is wrong – but does he really have another option? Still, Rasoulof establishes this character as sympathetic early – and then belabors the point. Still, it’s better than the scene between the intellectuals, which make the point over and over again about how the government is censoring them. You can feel Rasoulof’s anger at the actions of his government – but he would have been better served by making his point quickly. As it stands, the fact that he spends so much time going over the same material means the film drags for the first hour.

The second hour of the film is much better. Yes, the film is still mostly talk – but now it’s different, as the two hit men, along with a representative of the government – questions the intellectuals – using whatever means are necessary to get the information they want. These scenes are hard to watch – Rasoulof may be shooting on location, with a low budget, but that only makes the scenes feel even more real than they otherwise may have. The first hour may drag – but the second hour goes by much quicker.

I admire the effort behind Manuscripts Don’t Burn more than the end results. It seems like Rasoulof’s intention was do something akin to Costa-Gravas – who made angry political films, that were also excellent thrillers. Rasoulof doesn’t have the skillset of Costa-Gravas – who never would have made a film this slowly paced. But the end result of Manuscripts Don’t Burn is angry, important film – it deserves to be seen, even if the results aren’t perfect.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF last fall, and this review is based on that viewing. I assume that the version going into limited release in America today is the same one I saw at TIFF.

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