Get to Know Persian Culture: 10 Iranian Movies to Watch Right Now

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As of this morning, the U.S. and six other nations reached a historic agreement with Iran. Twenty months in the making, the nuclear deal will significantly limit Iran’s nuclear program and hopefully help reestablish our relationship with the nation. So what better time than now to get to know Persian culture and all it has to offer, like Tehran’s film scene and Iran’s longstanding reputation for incredible cinema. From Abbas Kiarostami and the directors of the Iranian New Wave to modern masterpieces like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, as well as films that bridge the gap like Ana Lily Amirpour’s American-made Iranian vampire movie, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there are so many wonderful Persian films to discover and stream right now. Check them out below, and if you’re in New York City, head over to our Persian food guide for the best Iranian restaurants in the city. 

CLOSE-UP, Abbas Kiarostami

Internationally revered Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has created some of the most inventive and transcendent cinema of the past thirty years, and Close-up is his most radical, brilliant work. This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event—the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—as the basis for a stunning, multilayered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves. With its universal themes and fascinating narrative knots, Close-up has resonated with viewers around the world. — via Criterion Collection 

*Bonus: Watch Kiarostami discuss the making of Close-Up HERE // Available to watch on Hulu

SALAM CINEMA, Mohsen Makhmalbaf

The famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf places a casting ad for 100 actors in a Tehran newspaper. Five thousand people show up and a riot ensues. Nearly everyone, it seems, wants to be a movie star (although one woman says she merely wants to go to Cannes for free). The director holds screen tests; and several dozen people sing, dance or show off altogether stranger talents. Some think they look like Paul Newman or Marilyn Monroe. The applicants—funny, brash and utterly touching—are a vivid array of people—intellectuals, students, children and, above all, women—whose lives would not normally emerge from the shadows in this way. Like many Iranian films, Salam Cinema blurs the line between fiction and documentary (it’s not even clear whether the auditions themselves were scripted). Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf plays himself in a wry, deft performance that walks a tightrope between fact and fiction. In a bravura display of personal and political self-analysis, he portrays an enlightened despot who plays with the wishes of the people. Without exception, the would-be stars talk about the important place of cinema in everyday life, as well as about their own lives. Salam Cinema, intended by the director as an homage to cinema on its centenary, is a sly and captivating look at film and life in a country seldom seen from the inside. San Francisco Film Society 

THE WHITE BALLOON, Jafar Panahi

It is an hour and a half before a new year begins in Teheran (on March 21), and the city is poised for celebration. A stern and adorable 7-year-old girl named Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) is pouting about not having the right goldfish for this occasion. The fish at home are skinny. She wants a fat one with better fins. So she wheedles her mother into giving her money for this purchase, but then the money is accidentally lost. Razieh enlists the help of several strangers to try retrieving it from beneath an iron grate.

And that’s really all there is to “The White Balloon,” a tiny, improbably charming Iranian film directed with lovely precision by Jafar Panahi. Mr. Panahi’s methods are so effective, in fact, that there’s reason to wish his film had more of a destination. Appearing to escalate as Razieh follows her winding path to that goldfish, and as the story unfolds in real time until the dawn of the new year, the film finally loses momentum and falls back upon the open-ended, anecdotal manner of a short story. Still, it’s a short story that can be enjoyed intently all the way through. — via NY Times

Available to watch on YouTube

PERSEPOLIS, Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

Satrapi, now living in Paris, told her life story in two graphic novels, which became best sellers and have now been made into this wondrous animated film. The animation is mostly in black sand white, with infinite shades of gray and a few guest appearances, here and there, by colors. The style is deliberately two-dimensional, avoiding the illusion of depth in current animation. This approach may sound spartan, but it is surprisingly involving, wrapping us in this autobiography that distills an epoch into a young women’s life. Not surprisingly, the books have been embraced by smart teenage girls all over the world, who find much they identify with. Adolescence is fueled by universal desires and emotions, having little to do with government decrees. —Roger Ebert 

Available to watch on iTunes and Amazon

A SEPARATION, Asghar Farhadi

Set in contemporary Iran, A Separation is a compelling drama about the dissolution of a marriage. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband Nader and daughter Termeh. Simin sues for divorce when Nader refuses to leave behind his Alzheimer-suffering father. Her request having failed, Simin returns to her parents’ home, but Termeh decides to stay with Nader. When Nader hires a young woman to assist with his father in his wife’s absence, he hopes that his life will return to a normal state. However, when he discovers that the new maid has been lying to him, he realizes that there is more on the line than just his marriage. — via Sony Pictures

Available to watch on iTunes and Amazon

TASTE OF CHERRY, Abbas Kiarostami

Seven years after making his astonishing and widely lauded film Close-Up, he won the Palme d’Or for his powerful exploration on morality, Taste of Cherry. Although minimalist in execution, the film is a poetic and philosophical meditation on life, death, and suicide. It tells the story of Mr. Baadi (played by Homayoun Ershadi), a middle-aged man searching for someone to bury him. Without explanation, we learn that Baadi plans on killing himself and has already dug his own grave, but he needs someone to cover him once the job is done. The film unfolds as we observe him driving around Tehran picking up various passengers and asking for their service. Between his conversations, the most prominent sound heard is of rocks rolling beneath the wheels of his car — providing its own calming effect over the film. For its morbid subject matter, Taste of Cherry never once feels oppressive — it may be emotionally trying, but his commitment to the endeavor begins to feel like an act of courage. When Mr. Baadi’s story ends, something strange and wonderful begins. Kiarostami pulls back the cinematic curtain and ends the movie by revealing footage of the film being made. In breaking the fourth wall, he creates a startling detachment and we’re finally given a moment to breathe. — via Decider 

Available to watch on Hulu

ABOUT ELLY, Asghar Farhadi

With the return of their close friend Ahmad from Germany, a group of old college pals decide to reunite for a weekend outing by the Caspian Sea. The fun starts right away as they quickly catch on to the plan of lively Sepideh, who has brought along Elly, her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, in hopes of setting her up with recently divorced Ahmad. But seemingly trivial lies, which start accumulating from the moment the group arrives at the seashore, suddenly swing round and come back full force when one afternoon Elly suddenly vanishes. Her mysterious disappearance sets in motion a series of deceptions and revelations that threaten to shatter everything they hold dear. — via Cinema Guild 

CHILDREN OF HEAVEN, Majid Majidi

When Ali loses his sister Zahra’s school shoes, this young pair dream up a plan to stay out of trouble: they’ll share his shoes and keep it a secret! But if they’re going to cover their tracks, the kids must carefully watch their step on what rapidly turns into a funny and heartwarming adventure. — via Mubi 

Available to watch on Netflix Instant, iTunes, and Amazon

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, Ana Lily Amirpour

 As “cinema’s first Iranian vampire western,” Girl brings us into a black-and-white world of undead desire, all set in a ghost town know as Bad City, where a lonely vampire skateboards through its dimly lit streets and the sordid souls that inhabit it.

Rife with prostitutes, pimps, and junkies lurking around every corner, we follow the “The Girl” as she occupies her bloodsucking isolated waking hours in darkness. Amalgamating everything from the Iranian New Wave and David Lynch-brand surrealism to graphic novels and playful nods to Sergio Leone, Amirpour has crafted a film that, while being deeply indebted to its influences, emerges as something wholly its own. With music that ranges from chilly techno to Morricone motifs, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night lures you into its strange and seductive world, putting a haunting new spin on the “pop fairytale.” So last week I was pleased to catch up with Amirpour to chat about everything from creative castration to the pleasures and pains of being a vampire. – BlackBook

Available to watch on Netflix Instant, iTunes, and Amazon

THE WIND WILL CARRY US, Abbas Kiarostami

”The Wind Will Carry Us,” Mr. Kiarostami’s new movie, which opens today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, ends on a similar note. A grizzled old doctor lectures the protagonist, a saturnine engineer a long way from home, about the glory of creation and the human obligation to notice it.

”Observing nature is better than playing backgammon or doing nothing,” the doctor muses. Developing the thought, he defines death as what happens when ”you close your eyes on the beauty of the world.”

By this definition, there is perhaps no living filmmaker as fully alive as Mr. Kiarostami. His eyes — and therefore ours — are perpetually open. His absorption in the wide emptiness of the rural Iranian landscape, in a remote corner of which ”The Wind Will Carry Us” takes place, yields views — hillsides, valleys and gnarled, solitary trees — that seem almost otherworldly in their clarity and depth. And his plots, which tend to unfold almost entirely outdoors because of his own aesthetic priorities and the restrictions on what Iranian films can show, seem to spring from the air and the ground, like those of folk tales or Chekhov stories. — NY Times

Available to watch on YouTube