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Watching Paziraie Sadeh, (Modest Reception, by Iranian director Mani Haghighi, Forum) and Wilaya (from Spanish director Pedro Pérez Rosado, Panorama), which both premiered today at the Berlinale, I’m struck by the uses of landscape, as in remote landscapes that are so barren as to strip away all superfluity until the only question left is: why am I here?
Both films have another common denominator: very beautiful lead actresses, whose often immobile features are a perfect foil for the insecurities beneath. In Pasiraie Sadeh Leyla (Taraneh Alidoosti) and her partner, an older man with a Napoleonesqe slinged-arm set off into the mountains in a four-wheel drive filled with money that they are intent on giving away – to the needy. At least, that’s the initial intent.
As they progress upwards into the mountains, they find that they are facing another kind of uphill struggle: getting people to accept beneficence. It’s not only suspicion that marks these encounters. It’s the basic desire to earn an honest wage, the existence of private agendas, the unwillingness to sacrifice integrity that makes life difficult for these latter-day alms-givers.
In Wilaya, a young Sahrawi woman, Fatimetu (Nadhira Mohamed) returns to an Algerian Saharan Refugee camp some 16 years after she was given up for adoption to Spain by a mother who is now dead – hoping that her children will support each other in the endurance test of Sahrawi refugee life. Already stamped by difference, Fatimetu finds herself no closer to establishing an identity as she works to re-establish relationships with her siblings and other camp members.
In Pasiraie Sadeh the remoteness and barrenness of landscape, its inapproachability and power to destroy reflects on an identity mistakenly derived from the false security of wealth. Unless there’s a moral agenda behind largesse, the distribution of money – and the power it implies – is a devilish undertaking. Like the landscape surrounding the two protagonists, the beauty of this gesture is superficial. Inner values must be unearthed before satisfaction is possible.
The same goes for the main character in Wilaya: the sands of the Sahara won’t provide answers in her search for identity, no matter how breathtaking. In this case, it’s international organizations that should have provided a context for that, long ago. In both movies, the merging of landscape, narrative and, yes, some moral imperatives, makes for relevant and eminently watchable cinema.