If the title It's Winter ended in an exclamation mark, you'd be right to be wary. But this is one seasonal film you can see without fear of encountering tap-dancing penguins or Jude Law in a cosy sweater. Rafi Pitts's film is somewhat more austere - but don't let the A-word put you off, either. Please don't overlook It's Winter in the festive rush; in any season, this Iranian gem would stand out as a terrific discovery.
True to its title, It's Winter does have some beautifully atmospheric snow scenes, although only the start and end of the film take place in winter, bookending the drama cyclically. Pitts starts his film by wrong-footing us as slyly as Psycho - not entirely a facetious comparison, as this too is a kind of thriller in its way. The film starts with Mokhtar, a middle-aged man, losing his job in an industrial suburb of Tehran, then walking home through falling snow to complain to his young wife Khatoun (Mitra Hadjar) that times are hard, that he should never have listened to her advice and built a house... Then he takes a train out of town, in search of work, and promptly disappears from the drama.
Here, the story changes tack. A bus pulls into town at night, and out gets a young man named Marhab (Ali Nicksolat). He's from the north, where the weather and the work didn't agree with him, he says; he's a first-rate mechanic and he's looking for a job. By all accounts, there's not much work going here, either, but a new acquaintance helps find Marhab a place in a repair shop. Marhab seems to have landed on his feet, but he turns out to be a slacker, a congenital whinger and a pretty unreliable friend (and by the looks of it, not such a great mechanic either), and he looks certain to mess things up for himself.
Meanwhile, he takes a shine to Khatoun when he spots her out shopping, and it's not long before he starts pursuing her - or, given his way of slowly trailing her through the suburb's empty, shuttered streets, "stalking" might be a better word.
It's Winter is a fascinating hybrid. It's poetic and a little other-worldly in atmosphere, with a terse, parable-like narrative style. Yet at the same time, its setting gives it a feel of hard realism, with a documentary edge in its picture of everyday working life, notably in the scenes of Khatoun doing her daily graft at a clothing factory. There are also elements of the social scene that we don't often see in films from Iran: signs of social depression and unemployment, with shots of homeless men sleeping in underpasses.
The film is unusually trenchant too in its view of sexual relations. It's not often that Iranian films explore themes this challenging to approved social norms: a young single man pursuing, in openly predatory fashion, a married woman whose husband is off the scene. There's also a scene in which Marhab, loitering in the street at night, exchanges quizzing glances with a young woman who appears to be a prostitute.
Given that, not so long ago, serious Iranian film-makers were obliged to play safe making films about children since dealing with adult relationships was considered somewhat risky, Pitts is sticking his neck out pretty boldly. Pitts also pushes the envelope somewhat in his portrayal of Iranian men: his two male characters here are feckless, erratic, prone to blame their woes on women. Mokhtar's journey abroad in search of work proves to be self-deluding folly, as he abandons his wife, daughter and mother-in-law in pursuit of an obscure and doomed dream. The fact that, at start and finish, both Mokhtar and Marhab trudge through the snow, accompanied by the lyrical lament of the title song, suggests that when it comes down to it, they're as self-pitying, stubborn and altogether lamentable as each other.
Marhab himself is something of a departure in Iranian cinema: an anti-hero who's realistic but a touch larger than life, clearly bad news but also immensely charismatic. Getting off the bus, he's the Iranian version of those moody drifters in countless American small-town thrillers. With his slicked hair, black jeans and distinctively Brandoesque whine, he's a rebel, on the surface at least - and like so many screen cool cats, something of a nebbish when you scratch that surface. But Ali Nicksolat - like most or all of the cast, a non-professional - is a distinctively different presence in Iranian film, with a vulnerable swagger that gives the film a very specific magnetism.
This is Rafi Pitts's third fiction feature but his first to be released in Britain. His distinctive take on things might owe something to his cosmopolitan background: he was partly educated in London, worked with French director Jacques Doillon, and made a documentary about American wildman auteur Abel Ferrara, whose view of stripped-nerve male desperation may have left some trace in Marhab's character. Whether or not that's the case, Pitts has made a small masterpiece, from start to haunting, crisply concise turnaround ending.
This is one winter film that really does leave you with an artistic chill.