Panah Panahi’s cunning, funny first feature, a hit at Cannes in 2021, arrives as depressing news emerges concerning his heroic father. Jafar Panahi, director of such modern Iranian classics as The Circle and Offside was, earlier this month, arrested when he dared to inquire about the plight of two other detained filmmakers. He faces the possibility of six years in jail.
It is hard not to view Panahi’s film as an act of premature, generationally inverted wish fulfilment. An irascible older man (Hassan Madjooni, forever scratching at a leg cast) and his witty, long-suffering wife (Pantea Panahiha, rolling eyes like a boss) drive their grown son (Amin Simiar) to the Turkish border with the intention of sneaking him surreptitiously out of the country. Panahi’s own screenplay never clarifies why the fugitive has to leave. They tell his little brother (Rayan Sarlak) that the young man is going off to be married. But, noting the wider context, we suspect his crimes may be “political”.
There is a great tradition of Iranian films set in motorcars. Abbas Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or in 1997 for the vehicular Taste of Cherry and returned to automotive confinement with Ten in 2002. Jafar Pahani’s last feature, Three Faces, spent most of its time in the director’s own SUV. There is thus a sense in which Hit the Road is connecting with heritage as it finds endless ways of exploiting small spaces.
Much like his father, Panah Panahi is always at home to play. There are sombre truths buried here, but the action advances with the lightest of steps. We begin with the kid apparently playing a keyboard inked on to his father’s cast. This most intimate of films makes explicit mention of 2001: A Space Odyssey and ends with a visual reference to that durable epic. Another lengthy late scene, shot with a camera several hundred metres distant from the characters, feels like an acknowledgment that, to this point, we have been in too-close confinement.
What really makes Hit the Road fly, however, is the fizzy interplay between the superb core actors. No offence is meant by noting parallels with a similarly nomadic family in Little Miss Sunshine. Madjooni gives us a man hiding his torment behind the easily adopted facade of grumpy decrepitude. The trip gives him a chance to open up with his older son, but even then we sense evasions and deflections. Panahiha is extraordinary as the more realistic, cool centre of the family unit. Upright, dignified and organised, she is forever ready to dispense aghast disappointment at the conceits of the men in the family. Panahiha is better still at little leakages of despair. We have long ago learnt to expect top-notch juvenile performances in Iranian film and Rayan Sarlak does not disappoint. The young boy is there to irritate, entertain and to accidentally reveal abrasive realities. The adults pitch everything as a game, but, as they near the border and encounter oddly clad smugglers, it becomes harder to pretend that this is an accompanied elopement. Why did they take the boy’s mobile phone and hide it beneath a rock?
The action does tend a little towards the episodic. Here is a funny encounter with a cyclist. Here is a fight over a bit of impromptu art on the window pane. But those incidents build effectively towards a final release that feels all the more convincing for its obliqueness. Amin Jafari’s lovely camerawork accommodates wide landscapes and moments of intimate ingenuity (there is room for a PhD thesis on the use of sidemirrors in films set around cars). And we haven’t yet mentioned the flawless canine performance.
A lovely comedy of the most serious hue.