A serial killer is murdering prostitutes in Mashad, Iran. Habib, a detective, unsuccessfully trying to detox from drug addiction, returns to Mashad, his hometown (his whispering voiceover recurs through the film, mournful, haunting, “City of memories … city of happiness …”), sent from police headquarters to look into the murders. The local cops resent his interference. Besides, these women are all prostitutes. Isn’t the murderer actually doing them all a favor by cleaning up the streets? Habib, played with gloomy determination by popular Iranian actor Faramarz Gharibian, dodges the ghosts of his own past on the rainy filthy streets of Mashad, and, after a long day of interrogations and knocking on doors, seeks out the dark corners of the city to huddle up with other drug addicts.
Fariborz Kamkari’s brutal 2006 film The Forbidden Chapter (he also wrote the script) has the heart of a film noir with its portrayal of a helpless burnt-out man facing an indifferent shadowy world, where crime and violence is so the norm that it is difficult to imagine another alternative. There’s even a noir-ish hooker with a heart of gold (played by Negar Abedi) who ends up being an important ally. But as the days crawl by, the bodies continue to pile up, women left for dead in the rotting heaps of garbage that fill Mashad. The killer appears to act not only with impunity but with religious fervor and devotion.
The religious theme is made explicit in the opening credits of the film when we see a group of men, all with long hair and beards, dressed in white, dancing in a group rapture around a fire as other men bang on translucent drums. The connection is made, visually, between the murder of the prostitute we saw in the prologue (horrifyingly executed, in front of the prostitute’s baby boy), and the dancing men. They are related.
A puppet is left at every crime scene, the signature of the serial killer. Habib, whose connections to Mashad runs deep, seeks out his old contacts, including his ex-wife, who is now struggling to make a living surrounded by destitution. She is probably a prostitute herself. She has connections to the movie theatre in town, which was burned down by religious fanatics. Habib, who had gone after those responsible, lost his job when it was revealed that those who burned down the movie theatre were backed by powerful people. After being roughed up by his police colleagues, Habib “apologized”, and has the scars on his nose to prove it. He got his job back, but he is now a hollowed-out man, running from his problems through drugs.
In Mashad, he lies on the bed in his dreary rented room staring at the Polaroids of all of the dead girls, searching for the connection. He senses it has something to do with religion. He doesn’t believe these are sex crimes; these women were not killed by their clients. He just knows it. He also struggles to find the connection between the puppets and the girls. If he squints long enough at the photos, maybe he will see the truth.
The local police are not only unhelpful but openly hostile. They have already arrested a man for the murders, but it is obviously a setup. Women are still being killed. The head detective, a silver-haired elegant man, tries to steer Habib into the right way of thinking. These women are prostitutes, who the hell cares?
As Habib begins his surreptitious investigation, as he interviews furious prostitutes who throw things at him when he approaches, he starts to become convinced that all murders are emanating from one place.
There is a holy school in Mashad, where acolytes gather from all over to study under the man known as the “caliph”, a bald man with a beard, his eyes rimmed with kohl. The students at the school, all grown men, are stripped of their possessions when they arrive, and made to strip naked. We see all this in a montage sequence later in the film, presented in gritty realistic detail. Their secular clothes are burnt and they are given identical white robes to wear. The students, or “talebs”, give their lives over to the caliph, who obviously holds ultimate power over those under his sway. They kiss his feet (literally), and he devotes himself to turning them into holy warriors. There is weapons training. One man blows himself up with a grenade in the middle of the courtyard. The talebs have to do “good deeds” to prove their loyalty. This could be helping an old lady with her bags, but it can also be breaking into people’s homes and smashing their televisions (seen as evil). They are thugs, but they are filled with holy fervor. The scenes involving these men, en masse, are nothing short of terrifying. When they displease the caliph, the guilt is so excruciating that they will do anything to eradicate it. One of the talebs hangs himself upside down in the courtyard, staying there for days. The caliph makes them walk on coals, all that Tony Robbins malarkey, mixed with radical Shiite Islam and a heightened sense of persecution (there is one scene where the men all sit in a circle and are told of all the terrible things done to Muslims all over the world – it is like a mantra, a recitation of victimization, meant to fill the talebs with righteous anger and self-pity).
The talebs obviously see murdering prostitutes as part and parcel of their “good deeds”. But one … one … named Morshed (one of the words for “storyteller” in Farsi) has doubts. He is haunted by how frightened the women look, just before they die. He cannot get the expression out of his mind.
But the holy school is a cult. No independent thought is allowed. No doubt is allowed. When Morshed tries to express his feelings to another taleb, the man literally puts his hands over his ears and starts saying, panicked, “I’m not listening, I’m not listening.”
Mashad, near the border with Afghanistan, is a holy city to Shiites, being the resting place of Ali Reza, which also makes it a stopping-point on Shiite pilgrimages. It is also, at least in Kamkari’s film, a cesspool of garbage, poverty, incessant rain, transients, corruption, and religious fanaticism. Mashad is the ninth circle of hell. Prostitution is rampant in Mashad due to the city’s proximity to refugee camps and major traveling routes, a fact of life that Forbidden Chapter handles extremely matter-of-factly. These women are not seen as harlots of the night. They are desperate women who need to feed their children, their sick brother, their elderly mother.
It should not be surprising that Kamkari would take such an unpopular controversial view (even in “enlightened” countries, prostitution is still a taboo topic, and the word “slut” is thrown towards any women who professes to enjoy sex or, hell, wear high heels and a short skirt). His first film, the blistering Black Tape (reviewed by myself and also by Kent Adamson for my Iranian film blogathon) is nearly unwatchable in its unblinking treatment of subjects such as sex crime, pedophilia, and domestic violence. Black Tape, a harrowing film – no other word for it – looks at the aftermath of the suppression of the Kurds, a taboo topic to this day in Iran, and for that reason and many others (the film is the frankest about sex I’ve seen from Iran), the film is banned in Iran. The Forbidden Chapter is equally as hard-hitting.
Taking on some of the most explosive topics in his country, Kamkari looks fearlessly at the connection between unrepentant misogyny and religious fanaticism in ways (all visual) that will chill the blood. Women are “other”. A local brothel parades women in a circle in front of prospective customers. The women come towards the camera, looking directly at it, pass by and then circle back, one face after another. They are young, wearing colorful head scarves, and are heavily made up. The scene is played without euphemism or coyness. They are for sale. In such a society, unless they are little girls or ancient crones, females are not only to be feared, but crushed like bugs. They are disgusting to the taleb fanatics, who live cloistered in their school, separated from the real world by dogma, religious texts, and brainwashing. Ministering to their own (male) bodies in a way that can only be described as idolatrous. (shaving off each other’s body hair, trimming their beards, washing their feet obsessively). Kamkari also, in one startling scene where an elder man bathes a younger man, suggests the homoerotic belljar many religious fanatics live in, finding forbidden comfort in the known and understood bodies of men, despite the taboo. It is preferable. After all, men are at least human, and women are less than human.
Looking at the writhing bearded men dancing in a Sufi-like trance around the fire is an eerie reminder that religious fanaticism depends on the fact that large groups of people are ready to abdicate their critical thinking powers. As Jason Beghe, famous ex-Scientologist said, “The genius of the con is that you end up imprisoning yourself. You police yourself.” Once you allow someone to burn your family photos and you do nothing about it, there is no going back.
Habib, one step ahead of each murder, runs through the narrow filthy streets of Mashad, garbage piled high on every side, trying to find out what the connection is between the prostitutes (besides their profession), and what the puppets have to do with everything. Puppets are an ancient art in Iran, highly evocative of the ancient past and the ties that bind the Persians together. Puppeteers perform in coffee houses and in parks, with musicians and storytellers (called “morsheds”), telling the shared tales from the collective past, the fairy tales and legends and myths. Puppets are a potent symbol of the strength of memory, the quiet power of stories.
Habib meets a prostitute who seems to know more than she is telling. She is open with him, humorous. She gives him information. He follows her lead. They hide in the bushes and stakeout the holy school, watching the comings and goings like a pair of grizzled old detectives. She says to him at one point, smiling, “You should marry me. It’s not that hard to ask.” She was married once before, she tells him as she makes him some tea in her tiny abode: “He was from India. He was a real gem. He sang and danced all day long. He had five wives, and wanted us to move to Arabia. He told me I would be his favorite wife. But I am attached to this land.” To my Westerner ears, that sounds like an insane monologue, but she says it in such a matter-of-fact way that I understood her, and understood what her husband had meant to her. She brings him up a lot. Losing him meant losing joy, happiness, possibility of warmth and ease.
The religious school has foreign ties and run a lucrative smuggling business (their common rooms are stacked to the ceiling with bootleg Persian rugs), and live behind a wall of plausible deniability. Nobody dares mess with the religious. But Habib does. He knows the murders originiate in that school somehow. But why? Is it just to “clean up the streets”, or could there be something deeper?
Habib, deeper and deeper into his investigation, comes to the heart of his own despair, his own sense of loss, that had been reverberating through the film from the beginning with his whispering voiceover. “City of intimacy, city of compassion, city of love …”
Forbidden Chapter was shot mostly in handheld, with cameramen obviously racing up and down the narrow slanting alleyways ahead of or behind the actors, and yet the film doesn’t feel messy or accidental. Each shot is planned and imagined. The images are startling, and Kazem Shahbazi, cinematographer, does a superb job at framing the cluttered garbage-strewn slums of Mashad, so specifically, and yet so casually, so the overall experience is one of total immersion. You do not get the sense that Kamkari is a tourist in this world.
The final words on the screen: “This is based on a true story” packed a greater punch than those words typically do in your basic Hollywood film.
The Forbidden Chapter made me feel desperate and hopeless. And because of that, I highly recommend it.