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[whitespace] 'Secret Ballot'
Veil-Safe: Nassim Abdi totes a ballot box in 'Secret Ballot.'

Desert Duo

A bored soldier and an uppity election official endure a sandy exile in Iranian 'Secret Ballot'

By Richard von Busack

PROPAGANDA FOR DEMOCRACY is still propaganda--a lesser art. And the middlingness of the Iranian import Secret Ballot is due to the fact that much of it is addressed to the outside world. The movie states that Iran is a country that's emerging from the reactionary religious chasm the nation fell--or rather, was driven--into 20 years ago. As is frequently the case in Iranian films, the style is a beautifully wrought version of Italian neorealism. But in Secret Ballot, the mood is something like British films from World War II about the home front. Though this movie acknowledges difficult conditions, too much is left unsaid. The movie's air of self-censorship is disturbing.

But some might take Secret Ballot on an easier level, as a throwback to the tradition of Westerns involving the touchy friendship of nuns and soldiers out on the frontier, though the woman here (known as Girl and played by Nassim Abdi) isn't really a nun--she just dresses that way, in accordance with the Iranian custom.

Director Babak Payami sets up the grudging companionship during the course of one day; and if the intro is slowly paced, there's a good excuse for it. A soldier (Cyrus Abidi) at a remote border post on an island wakes up for his shift. The base is a checkpoint from which to watch out for smugglers. It's too hot to sleep indoors, so he and the other soldier have moved their bunk bed outside to get some air. I wrote "bunk bed," but there's actually only one mattress, the two have to take shifts in it. In the opening, the soldier wakes up, has a minor argument with the other soldier, goes out to look around, gets his shoes on, harnesses his rifle--all in enough slowly paced detail to make sure you understand the heat, the remoteness, the enforced boredom of a soldier's life.

A cardboard ballot box descends by parachute; in short order, a girl arrives by motorboat. She's an election official, and she can pull rank on the soldier and make him escort her to all the hamlets on the island to make sure that they vote. This duty irks the soldier in so many different ways. First, he doesn't like the locals, whom he considers bumpkins and criminals. Second, he believes that he should be watching the coast. Third, he knows what a woman's place is, and it's not gallivanting about the countryside. And this particular woman is uppity; when the soldier asks her why they're going to all this trouble, she tends to recite her answers as if reading them off a blackboard.

The rapport that grows between these two is the main recommendation for Secret Ballot. The desert-island locations have the age-old appeal of sand and water. But even if the film is candid enough to admit that Iran's system involves rubber-stamping candidates, the film's repetition and Payami's aversion to editing begin to get a little chafing. Watching the movie, you may start to feel you've been out in the sun too long.

Secret Ballot (Unrated; 105 min.), written and directed by Babak Payami, photographed by Farzad Jadat and starring Nassim Abdi and Cyrus Abidi, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the August 22-28, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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