Written and directed by Bahman Farmanara
With Farmanara, Roya Nonahali, Reza Kianian and Valiyollah Shrinadami
Distributed by New Yorker Films
Bahman Farjami (Farmanara) is not a happy camper. Blacklisted from filmmaking for more than 20 years, his chance for a potential comeback comes through Japanese TV, who commission him to make a documentary about Iranian funeral rites. Financially, the work is welcome, but psychologically, his producers couldn't have chosen a worse subject if they were deliberately trying to provoke him into suicide. Death is everywhere around him. Although his wife passed away 5 years ago, Bahman is still deep in mourning. He gives a girl a ride home, only to discover that she's a battered wife carting her dead baby around. (She leaves it in his car.) His friends are equally bitter, his health failing, his sleep plagued by nightmares. The victim of multiple heart attacks, he continues to smoke, avoids exercising and blows off his doctor's dietary advice. Filmmaking only encourages him to sink further into depression, especially when he discovers that the grave he pre-ordered for himself alongside his wife's has been used already.
SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE is both narcissistic and self-critical, a mixture probably responsible for the Woody Allen comparisons it's received. In Iranian cinema, such a personal focus isn't unprecedented: Mohsen Makhmalbaf re-staged an incident from his youth in A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE. Yet the "Makhmalbaf" of A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE is its least interesting character, and the film devotes more concern to the attitudes of the present-day teenagers he recruits as actors than to him. (As a borderline suicidal filmmaker researching funeral rites, Bahman conflates the protagonists of Kiarostami's past two films, TASTE OF CHERRY and THE WIND WILL CARRY US.) In SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE, no one else gets much a look in. Bahman's friends are basically doppelgangers: artists in late middle age who, like him, have been blacklisted from steady work. He only talks to his children on the telephone, and his mother, suffering from Alzheimer's, can't respond to him. Under such circumstances, it's no wonder that he clings to memories of his late wife.
SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE is divided into three parts. Only its first act, dubbed "A Bad Day," takes much of the world around Bahman, including ills ranging from domestic violence, class stratification and atrocities in Sierra Leone to hints about drug abuse and youth suicide. Is the film simply using these as metaphors for his angst? Farmanara's social criticism is fairly indirect. An umistakable undertone, it takes a secondary position to his navel-gazing. Even so, his charm as an actor and sly hints of self-awareness keep the film from sinking into terminal self-pity. The character seems to know very well that he's a "loser," but sees death as so close that he can't work up any energy to put into his film.
For all its reflexivity, SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE never purports to be a documentary. Associating dreams with death, it abandons naturalism whenever Bahman has a brush with the latter. Ultimately, it uses these outbursts of fantasy to mark a way out of his seemingly inevitable downward spiral. Old age may not really be the film's subject after all, as Bahman's comment that not being able to make art is a form of living death gains increasing resonance. Morbidity and creativity come together in an unexpected, touching way, as he finally accepts the that life will go on without him. If this film is autobiographical, it's more than a little ironic that its testament to losing one's voice as an artist and a man brought Farmanara to worldwide attention.