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[whitespace] Jalil Nazari
Fabric of Life Jalil Nazari plays an Afghan guest worker in Iran in 'Djomeh.'

Milk Cow Blues

Subtle yet heartbreaking 'Djomeh' questions the rural life with insight and delicacy

By Richard von Busack

ALL THE SUPPOSED benefits of traditional country life--the close family ties, the wide-open spaces, the villages, the work with farm animals--are exposed as the hardships they often can be in Djomeh. Director Hassan Yektapanah's film follows the life of an Afghan guest worker, a hired hand on a minuscule dairy farm in the high, dry country in Iran, far from anywhere. Djomeh (Jalil Nazari) has a dreamy, childlike face and the youthful illusions to go with it. He shares a room with his countryman Habib (Rashid Akbari), who considers Djomeh a troublesome sissy. Habib has a long memory for a scandal in his roommate's past, too.

With no one to talk to but the cows, Djomeh sounds out his boss, the bachelor farmer Mahmoud (winningly played by Mahmoud Behraznia). During the long journeys by pickup truck to the market, Djomeh talks of his hopes, but Mahmoud's guessed it already: Djomeh has a crush. The Afghan farmhand has been making up errands in order to ride his bicycle into town and see a village girl, Setareh (Mahbobeh Khalili), whom he'd like to marry.

Djomeh could be called neorealist regional film, but it's neither. This story could be transplanted anywhere on the globe, from Australia to Argentina, yet Yektapanah doesn't make Djomeh simplistic, nor does he rejoice in that pretty-prettiness of the typical countryside film. Djomeh doesn't feed the audiences Marie-Antoinette fantasies of being a milkmaid. These cows get sick, and they're stubborn, too: Why do you think they call them "Bossy"?

But the subtlety in this story is seen in how one can read it in another way than the way I've described. Djomeh may not be just sensitive, but a screw-up, a romantic idler who ought to be fired. Rather than courting the woman who loves him but doesn't show it, he may really be annoying a village girl too shy to make him go away. The center of this drama--the point at which the film can be read both ways--is at the one-room store where Setareh works. Yektapanah gives her no close-ups. Kahlili's performance is completely uninflected. She's home, but the lights aren't on. And she may be signaling her father to come in and brush off this weird foreigner.

The only relationship to be trusted here is between Mahmoud and Djomeh. The younger man's daydreams of a wife and a house wake up something in the elder man, but it only wakes him a little, and that littleness is just right. The remote country though which the truck travels is a visual reminder of the vast loneliness concealed within some people's hearts. Mahmoud's unshaven skeptical face, on the other hand, reminds us of the limits we have to place on our sympathy, in order to survive in this world. Djomeh is such a smart film that it doesn't tell you whether the limits or the loneliness is sadder.

DJOMEH (Unrated; 94 min.), directed and written by Hassan Yektapanah, photographed by Ali Loghmani and starring Jalil Nazari, Mahbobeh Khalili and Rashid Akbari, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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