In the confines of a dust covered Mercedes, a young boy softly taps the keys of a piano, one scribbled with jagged ink onto his father’s leg cast. With each gentle tap a note escapes into the hot air, emanating with beautiful resonance as if he were seated at a Steinway in a grand concert hall. His father, trying to get a moment of sleep, nudges him with knowing annoyance in an attempt to stop him. His elder brother, the driver of their transport, paces in the sand on the side of the road, stretching his legs in preparation for more miles on their currently undefined journey. His mother sits pensively in the front seat, staring ahead blankly, before turning to stare into the lens with an unforgettable melancholy painted on her face, peering into the soul of the viewer before asking, “Where are we?” The young boy looks up from his resting place on his father’s ankle and replies plainly, “We’re dead.”
Thrust into the narrative in media res, it’s easy to be confounded by the opening moments of Iranian director Panah Panahi’s debut film Hit the Road. Immediately awash with questions you begin trying to piece together what might be happening, and each new sequence or piece of dialogue only seems to make it all more mysterious. The mother and father discover the younger son’s cell phone, an item which has been strictly banned from their trip, and they frantically attempt to dispose of it before continuing on their journey. They begin to suspect they are being followed, quickly turning to a roadside shop, hoping to lose their tail. The details are never spelled out explicitly, but as they meander nervously through the windy roads of Iran, slowly approaching the lush western wilderness bordering Turkey, the family’s interactions with each other, with nature, and with those they encounter, begin to reveal a profoundly sad and equally striking fable.
Their car a ferry drifting towards a prescient conclusion, their journey slowly becomes one down the river Styx, a bleak purgatory on its way to a dark destination. Though presented as a tender and comedically inflected road film, a thick fog looms above at all times, the overbearing reality of the situation weighing on the three older characters while the exuberant young brother constantly grins with innocent glee, free of the knowledge surrounding the family’s current circumstances. As they grow closer and closer to the edge of existence and a momentary drift into the infinite cosmos, it becomes clear that their journey is one borne out of necessity, an attempt to smuggle eldest son Farid from Iran to Turkey to escape the wrath of the country’s unforgiving autocracy.
The reasons are unclear, but the film’s relentlessly foreboding atmosphere grants weight absent of a concretely defined catalyst, freeing itself from feeling like the journey of just one family and expanding its intentions to broadly and elegantly visualize systemic and cultural observations. Panahi’s film is soaked in cinematic influence, notes of his father Jafar Panahi’s sensibilities whistle through the warm air and the resonant lyricism of childhood mentor Abbas Kiarostami sings through meditative monologues, but Panahi’s approach feels like a distinct inversion of the hopeful forward motion so familiar in Iranian cinema. Road movies are far from new territory, a recurring theme that courses through some of the most acclaimed pieces of the Iranian film industry, but while films like Taste of Cherry (1997), Life, And Nothing More… (1992) and Taxi (2015) utilize the confines of their vehicles to convey an uplifting forward progress and provide extended poignant dialogues between characters, Hit The Road‘s moments within the worn beige Mercedes are rife with pained urgency, a claustrophobic metal cage barreling towards a tear in the family fabric.
The film flourishes in each moment the car is stopped, a deep breath of fresh air that expels the anxiety inflicted by each mile forward. For a brief time, Farid’s worried unease melts away and his mother smiles warmly. In a way only a mother could, she interrogates him lovingly about his thoughts on the world’s greatest film, to which he responds with an abounding love for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), looking adoringly into the sky as he praises its mesmerizing celestial finale. In another scene Farid and his father Khosro bicker lightly while opening up to each other about the nature of their journey, and in another, the film’s most stunning and transcendent moment, Khosro and his younger son have a charming discussion about the value of the Batmobile. Slowly the fog envelops the hills, now vibrantly green in stark opposition to a once grimy and colorless horizon, and the spirit of Charon brings Farid into his arms.
Returning from their quest to an unsure future, the family encapsulate the film’s striking atmosphere, singing along to cultural staple pop music in a façade of presumed joy while tears streak their cheeks, spiritual catharsis burdened with an infinite melancholy. Though standing in defiant opposition to being a direct stylistic continuance of his predecessors’ approaches, Hit The Road remains an ultimately beautifully tender and humanist story, soaked in the familiar warmth of the country’s penchant for cinematic empathy. Amin Jafari’s cinematography is wonderfully colorful and stunningly framed, imbuing evocative thoughtfulness into each frame and allowing the most important moments to breathe and revel in their existence. The soundtrack, a combination of gentle piano sonatas and upbeat Iranian pop hits, constantly floods the screen’s atmosphere with elevated panache. Immaculately and lovingly crafted, as it continues to endear with its surface of humor and familial quarreling, it infuses immense complexity and a lingering sadness that stays with you, each moment seeping into the fabric of your thoughts. Complex in its ambiguity, hopeful in its sadness, and vigorously full of life even when the visage of death looms overhead, a fascinating film that celebrates its contradictions and uses them to wind into a wonderfully singular and eloquently poetic debut.