Scream of the Ants
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Cast: Mahmoud Chokrollahi, Mahnour Shadzi, Karl Maass, Bolha Baba, Savitha Iyer, Tenzin Chogyal, Bharath K.S. Screenplay: Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Photo © 2007 Makhmalbaf Film House/Wild Bunch
I purchased a ticket to Scream of the Ants based solely on my affinity for Mohsen Makhmalbaf's past work, which has a nasty habit of receiving no commercial distribution in the United States despite the relative box-office potency of his Gabbeh and Kandahar and the critical adoration of those films and several others. Which is to say, I lacked any notion of Scream's theme or plotline and could not possibly have forecast the poetic, festival-style justice of wandering in the space of a single morning from Wes Anderson's Kool-aid vision of India to Makhmalbaf's assiduously bleak travelogue of subcontinental misery and his fulminating screed against the venal idealisms and disavowals that so often typify a foreigner's passage to India. As an Indian journalist advises a betrothed Iranian couple aboard an Indian train, "Most foreigners who come to India are stupid. They come chasing all the wrong things." Not coincidentally, this pronouncement follows the woman's admission that she and her fiancé have come in pursuit of a "Complete Man" or "Perfect Man" reputed by an acquaintance of theirs to "do great things in people's lives." This is a harebrained, romantically superficial agenda to rival Owen Wilson's—though Makhmalbaf, already savvy enough to set the West aside and show how one south Asian culture trivializes another, is also attuned to how India exploits and mystifies its own. Not only is the journalist riding the train to investigate a rumor about an old sage who can "stop trains with his eyes," and thus to earn a living by perpetuating the very kind of hooey he pretends to ridicule, but he kills time aboard the train espousing his own strain of unqualified utopianism ("Life is a miracle – everything is a miracle!") that is ubiquitously undermined by the status quo of a country where 99% of a billion citizens live below the global standard of poverty. In a brilliant and wickedly funny masterstroke, when the train finally haps upon the celebrated Baba sitting cross-legged on the rails, he privately confides to the Iranian couple that he sat on the tracks one day in hopes of ending his misery, but the train conductors all persist in slamming on their brakes—and now, the adulating crowds of pilgrims who have gathered around and behind him refuse to release him or to desist from holding him up as a spiritual icon.

This 20-minute opening of Makhmalbaf's movie is rendered with the political friskiness and absurdist humor for which Iranian films, much less Iran itself, is seldom given credit, largely because Western festivals and distributors decreed the flowering of Iranian cinema based on the evidence of children's stories like Children of Heaven and somber meditations like Taste of Cherry. The Makhmalbaf of A Moment of Innocence or Gabbeh, and even more certainly his Iranian contemporaries like Kamal Tabrizi and Massoud Dehnamaki, would have spun a teasing but illuminating feature out of this comic entrapment and the serious currents of ignorance, projection, and desperation that give rise to it. The Baba himself, with his weather-beaten body and his doubly-elbowed arm—a souvenir, no doubt, of a long-ago compound fracture—is a transfixing character who may or may not be "in" on the joke of which his fate is the center. Therefore, it's with considerable regret that we watch Makhmalbaf and his characters abandon this anecdote for a shape-shifting movie that never finds any comparably fertile or crystallized point of focus, however much justifiable anger and philosophical ambivalence Makhmalbaf allows himself to vent through the ensuing hour of arguments, monologues, vérité photography, and narrative cul-de-sacs. The husband, a former Communist long disabused of any form of hope or belief in his fellow man, reveals himself to be a colossal narcissist and a chauvinist of epic proportions—not least when he hires a prostitute for an entire night to get down on all fours and serve as a table on which to set his teacup. The wife, comparatively sympathetic but worryingly recessive, hungers for the kind of fulfillment this lover will never give her and hangs more desperately on the dream of finding a Complete Man whom she doesn't even recognize when she finds him.

Scream of the Ants grows nearly intolerable as the two trade bitter barbs over the course of a long night, so much so that we excuse the totally incongruous edit that finds them reunited for a taxi-ride into the desert. In an even more marked demonstration of the narrative listlessness that afflicted his script for his daughter Samira's most recent film, At Five in the Afternoon, Scream of the Ants lacks anything like the muscular, compressed montage that typified earlier Makhmalbaf projects. He resorts to fixing the camera on scenes and objects which are themselves prodigious or harrowing or beautiful rather than making them so through framing and metaphor, as he did so indelibly with the floating prostheses of Kandahar or the titular character of The Cyclist. Scream of the Ants, whose title refers to the unheard protests of people in a godless world, lapses inexcusably into talking-head aesthetics, with various characters spouting different strains of Makhmalbaf's own frustrated and contradictory world-critiques... but then, just as the picture precipitously lost its footing after the first act, it recovers its visual potency, at the very least, in an extended finale along the shores of the Ganges: filled with bathers, bobbing with corpses, strewn with blossoms, lapping against the concrete banks where even the wealthiest of the deceased are burned by their families for want of a proper gravesite. Again, the strange and bitter world yields itself up to Makhmalbaf's camera without his necessarily intervening or shaping our impressions at the level of his most rigorous artistry. And yet, these moments of mysterious and discomfiting realism make Scream of the Ants an urgent record of a denied world (and not an emblem of that very denial, like The Darjeeling Limited is, for all its cosmetic wonders). In its visual austerity, its withering speeches, its unusual tolerance for nudity and verbal vulgarity, and even in its aesthetic self-sabotage, Scream of the Ants maps a Godardian arc from artistic wit and sophistication into dogmatic ideology and ascetic self-loathing, directed if not against the director himself than at least against his medium and against his world. Whether this breakdown is ameliorated or extended by the riverside coda is up to each viewer to decide, just as the question remains open as to whether Makhmalbaf has really made a movie here or else just crudely illustrated an Op/Ed that's been thundering inside his head.

Commercial distributors will sprint in the opposite direction from a picture like this (check out the Variety review!), so I'm doubly grateful to the film festival. For better or worse, this side of Makhmalbaf is exhilarating at its best but still feels essential at its petulant and shapeless worst (embodied, for me, in a long speech by a German tourist who's repeating what a million college-campus T-shirts have contended for years). I wanted to scream several times during Scream of the Ants, sometimes for no better reason than the film's laziness and hectoring tone, but just as often for the same reasons that have pushed Makhmalbaf to this edge of his own outrage. Grade: C+

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