The two dominant strands of post-revolution Iranian cinema – quaint neorealism and thick meta theory – come together in this wily experiment from writer-director-editor Jafar Panahi.
The Mirror begins as the simple tale of Mina (Mina Mohammad Khani), a little girl whose mother is late to pick her up from school. Setting her face in a scowl of determination, she boards a bus and attempts to navigate her own way home.
That’s a gripping-enough quest for a kid-centered narrative, but the stakes are raised considerably about a third of the way in, when Mina looks into the camera, declares “I don’t want to be filmed anymore!” and walks off the set. After a few minutes pouting, she stomps toward home on her own, essentially living out the role she was just playing. Panahi lets her go, trailing her with his camera and via the microphone she’s still wearing, continuing to film as she winds her way on a seemingly more perilous journey through traffic, in and out of taxis and among strangers, not all of whom are sympathetic to her plight.
I say seemingly more perilous because surely some artifice is at work here. Not only is it unthinkable that Panahi would let his little actress loose in this urban chaos, but there is a seamlessness to the adventure that suggests a certain level of advance planning. Even so, the verite sensibility is so well established – passing trucks often block the camera’s view of Mina; her microphone haphazardly cuts out, leaving us in desperate silence – that the urgency of her situation is palpable. The more the movie mirrors the truth, the more suspenseful it becomes.
Of course, it’s clear from an early shot – a 360-degree pan around a busy intersection – that Panahi has more on his mind than this one girl. In the passing conversations captured on Mina’s mic, we sense a society wobbling under the weight of its oppressive patriarchy. In the opening section, women commiserate on the bus, which they pointedly must enter from their own door. Later, during Mina’s “real” journey home, she is squished into a cab with a number of adults having a heated argument about whether or not women should work outside the home.
Again, the stakes are raised in the latter instance because we perceive this conversation – the one being had “off camera” – as more authentic. The Mirror leaves the impression that the seeds of societal revolution being sown are not merely the wishful hopes of subversive cinema, but rather the forceful expressions of the real world.