Early on in “No Bears,” his brilliant, furious and despairing new movie, the Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi draws a line in the sand. Under cover of darkness, Panahi, here playing a semi-fictional version of himself, arrives on a hill near Iran’s northwestern edge, so close that he can see the lights of a Turkish city beckoning from a short distance. The temptation to cross over is unmistakable; his colleague (Reza Heydari) urges him to do it, assuring him, with an almost Mephistophelian impishness, that no harm will befall him. But Panahi refuses. Realizing that he is in fact standing on the border itself, he backs away as though stung, unable or unwilling to embrace the freedom that has slipped all too briefly into view.
It’s a piercing moment, not least because the real Panahi has, since 2010, been forbidden to leave or travel outside his home country. His situation has only worsened in recent months: In July he was arrested and imprisoned, not long before mass protests erupted across Iran and fueled the country’s most sustained wave of civil unrest in years. “No Bears,” first shown in September at the Venice International Film Festival, was completed well before those events began. But like most of Panahi’s movies, it is preternaturally attuned to the systemic realities — misogyny, rigid traditionalism, religious fundamentalism — that set this and other Iranian protest movements in motion.
With Panahi now serving a six-year prison sentence, “No Bears” is likely to be his last cinematic dispatch for some time. But part of the point he’s making in this movie is that his constraints have never been purely physical, and neither are his means of resistance. Cinema, like the world itself, is full of invisible boundaries, governed by rules and assumptions that Panahi has long challenged with extraordinary resourcefulness and good-natured cunning. Since 2010, when the Iranian government subjected him to a 20-year ban from filmmaking, he has managed to direct no fewer than five features. Personal and playful, often shot in secret and made under tight restrictions, these movies have found their director turning increasingly inward. Gamely stepping into the role of his own alter ego — a genial but embattled film director who also happens to be named Jafar Panahi — he muses wryly on the nature of his confinement, and also on the contradictions and complexities of an art form that he can’t seem to quit even or especially under the direst circumstances.
The first of his post-ban movies, cheekily titled “This Is Not a Film” (2011), was a video diary shot while Panahi was under house arrest in Tehran. “No Bears,” the fifth and latest, finds his protagonist wandering far from home. This imaginary Panahi — let’s call him Panahi Prime — has come to this remote village to be as close as possible to his latest film production, which is shooting in that Turkish city nearby. It’s an inconvenient, far-from-ideal setup; for one thing, the WiFi signal is virtually nonexistent, making it difficult for the director to communicate with his cast and crew. At the same time, you suspect that he’s in it partly for the inconvenience, or at least for the rustic charm and isolation that come with it.
The locals looking after him during his stay — an obsequious host, Ghanbar (Vahid Mobasheri), and his mother (Narjes Delaram) cheerily serving meals out of an underground oven — are friendly and attentive, sometimes to a fault. And Panahi Prime can be an entitled and sometimes inconsiderate houseguest. But he will pay for their hospitality and then some. Before long he finds himself embroiled in a small-town drama partly of his own making, set in motion by a simple act — the snapping of a photograph — that will have absurd and deeply troubling consequences.
At the heart of the matter is a romantic triangle ensnaring an earnest young woman named Gozal (Darya Alei); her stern-faced fiancé, Jacob (Javad Siyahi); and Solduz (Amir Davari), the man she may really love. I say “may” because “No Bears,” ingeniously constructed so as to continually reveal new layers of suspense and surprise, delights in withholding information and booby-trapping our assumptions. A kind of tense, chilling comedy ensues as the villagers’ friendly smiles and lavish manners gradually subside, revealing latent hostility, a fearsome mob mentality and an insatiable hunger for scandal. (And also a talent for obfuscation: The title debunks a local lie about bears in the area, used to scare people from straying away from the village at night.)
The townspeople are convinced that their visiting filmmaker took — and still has in his possession — an incriminating photograph of Gozal and Solduz together. But he refuses to corroborate their suspicions, stating repeatedly — and in response to increasingly harsh public questioning — that he never took such a photo in the first place. Did he or didn’t he? The movie isn’t saying. Its point seems to be that it hardly matters, given how thoroughly convinced the villagers are of the righteousness of their cause, the guilt of the accused and the complicity of this visitor from the big city. But there are many forms of complicity, and one of the strengths of “No Bears” is that it refuses to let anyone, even its ostensible hero, off the hook.
If Panahi Prime is innocent in this affair, he is considerably less so with regard to the Turkish film production he’s directing from afar. That movie-within-a-movie, shot in sharply composed single takes that offset it from the rest of the action, tells the story of another couple, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), who seek refuge abroad using fake passports. And so we are back in the realm of troubled romance, and also in the zone of illegal border crossings and human trafficking. Complicating matters further is the fact that Zara and Bakhtiar are not merely actors; they are subjects in a kind of docu-fiction hybrid, enacting, in real time, a dramatic version of their own experience. And in telling their story, the filmmaker runs the risk of endangering their safety and selling them out.
The captured image, in other words, can cause an awful lot of trouble. Panahi may be operating worlds away from either Steven Spielberg or Jordan Peele, but it’s fascinating that all three filmmakers have made movies in the past year — the others are Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and Peele’s “Nope” — that express a certain pessimism about the very medium they inhabit. The history of filmmaking, it bears reminding, is also a history of exploitation and abuse. A still photograph or a snippet of footage can bring hidden truths to light, but it can also distort those truths beyond recognition. Film directors, at least like the one Panahi plays here, often operate at a lofty, privileged remove, treating their collaborators like property and eagerly thrusting their cameras in where they seldom belong.
Panahi seems to relish taking himself and his chosen art form to task. But he isn’t really condemning cinema so much as quarreling with it, interrogating it, poking around in its moral gray zones and inviting us to see what he sees. He loves the movies too much — and they’ve clearly sustained him through far too much — for him to entirely dismiss their power. And “No Bears,” steadily darkening as it builds to a climax that feels both inevitable and shattering, is as much an affirmation of that power as a critique of it.
That ending, marked by tragedy and tears, hits even harder when you consider Panahi’s uncertain future and that of the country now imprisoning him — a place that, as that early scene at the border suggests, he would have difficulty leaving even if he could. The realities of the situation are grim enough that a lesser work might have paled into insignificance, but “No Bears” — the best and bravest new feature I saw last year, a work of extraordinary emotional power, conceptual ingenuity and critical force — somehow manages the opposite. Panahi has made, paradoxically, a great movie about a medium that often falls short of greatness. You long to see him free, not least so he can make another.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 13 at Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles