The Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz once suggested that all modern Arabic literature (including his own) was ‘fourth or fifth rate’, proposing that non-first world countries, countries which aren’t advanced industrial nations, were generally incapable of producing first rate work. So how would we explain Iranian Rafi Pitt’s third feature It’s Winter? Sure Iran’s language is not Arabic but Farsi, and Pitt has chosen to return to work in Iran after studying film and photography in London. But what about all the other great Iranian filmmakers like Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf? Also, any country that happens to produce some half a dozen film magazines must have a pretty self-conscious approach to the art it produces.
It’s Winter is a marvellous combination of advanced aesthetic style and decidedly non-advanced Middle Eastern lives. Stranger in a small town Marhab (Ali Nicksaulat) is a penniless ne’er do well who arrives in a semi-industrialised suburb near Tehran as another man leaves, desperately looking for work elsewhere. He befriends a hard-working, poorly paid mechanic and pursues Khatoun (Mitra Hajjar), the wife of the missing man.
Utilising sound through harsh industrial noises and poetic music, Pitts also carefully frames his characters against the wintry landscapes. The most trusted element in many western films - dialogue - is the least trusted here as Pitts tries to draw out the complexity of his characters’ lives at one remove but without sacrificing empathic feeling.
Though neorealist in intention It’s Winter is also reminiscent of taciturn American cinema gems of the 70s, notably Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Huston’s Fat City and Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces - where inarticulate characters are contained by a cinematic imagination that more than compensates. If this isn’t quite first rate filmmaking - one or two transitions seem a bit clumsy - it still easily counters Mahfouz’ self-deprecating claims.