Deserted Station is a haunting quiet (at times too quiet) film based on a story by Iranian great Abbas Kiarostami, and directed by Alireza Raisian, it tells the story of a husband and wife (the wife is played by the wonderful Leila Hatami, who starred in Leila – my thoughts on that film here), on a pilgrimage to Mashad (presumably from Tehran). They bicker a bit in the car. She tries to tell him a story about the nastiness of their neighbor, and he brushes it off. She says, “You don’t understand the poisonous darts women can throw at each other.” The anecdote has something to do with having children, being pregnant. We get the sense that there might be trouble in that arena, for this couple. He is a photographer. He continually stops the car to shoot the scenery, and when his wife takes a nap, he takes pictures of her sleeping.
It’s never expressly said (because things are rarely expressly said in Iranian films) that the husband is kind of useless – but the impression is given that he’s intellectual, distant, always looking at the world (and his wife) through a camera lens. And then when their car breaks down, he is unable to fix it, and has to go for help.
it is as much about the windy desert landscape as anything else. The scenery does not need to be editorialized, or shot in a specific way – it is just there – the salt plains, the mountains, the towns cut out of the rocks … All Raisian needs to do is place his characters in that context, and feelings are evoked.
The town is full of women and children – no men. All of the men work in the cities as laborers, and the kids never see their fathers. Maybe once a year. Many of them dont have mothers either. Mahmood wanders around, for a while, asking for help, but the women keep walking by, many of them struggling under heavy loads. We see him dwarfed by the landscape. He is a solitary black-clad figure, surrounded by bleached tan rocks, crumbling doorways, strange unearthly rock formations.
Finally one woman stops, and she tells him to go find Feizollah – he should be able to help. She asks him where he was headed. He tells her to Mashad, on a pilgrimage. She looks at him and says, with no provocation, “You were not called then.” Meaning: it’s meant to be that you would break down here. The saint did not call you. Mahmood doesn’t quite like that comment, you can see him balk. There’s trouble in paradise. What does it mean to ‘not be called’? Feizollah is found. He’s a great character. The only man left in the town, he has taken it upon himself to set up a school for the village children. He has procured notebooks. He teaches classes in history, dictation, mathematics. He also cuts the children’s hair and nails (which is what he is doing when we first meet him). He takes care of these kids. Many of them are staying with relatives. They have been forgotten. “Deserted”, to coin a phrase. But Feizollah gives them structure to their days. There is recess. Class. He also is a mechanic. And he also ran for office – for a city council seat or something like that. Mahmood gets the story there, and sees the campaign photos that Feizollah has circulated – tells him that the photos are amateurish, he should get new photos done – and Mahmood would be happy to help. This gives Feizollah a launching-off place for a diatribe about politics, which – seen in the context of Iran’s political landscape at this time, the censorship, journalists in jail, random crackdowns on students, etc. – is breathtakingly courageous. “The people don’t want ‘real’,” says Feizollah. It’s all about the “spin”, and the image. Feizollah and Mahmood ride to where the car is broken down on Feizollah’s motorbike. The situation is more complicated – Feizollah will need to dismantle the truck, go for parts, etc. etc. He suggests that Mahmood and his wife go catch a nearby train to Mashad, and come back later for their vehicle. They don’t want to do that. Eventually, it is decided that the wife (who has no name, not that I can remember, anyway) will go back to the little town – and be a substitute teacher for a day – Feizollah is worried about leaving the kids unattended. She will do that – while Mahmood and Feizollah deal with the broken-down car.
So that’s what happens. The wife finds herself surrounded by children (and God. You just love all of them. They’re typical for Iranian films – which often have to do with children. They are scrappy, real, rambunctious – and don’t seem like actors. They probably aren’t actors. They are a GANG, these kids. Awesome).
There’s one little girl who is deformed, she can’t walk, and she is at the head of her class. The other kids in the class take turns carrying her around in a little backpack. They’re all quite casual about it.
We don’t know, at first, what is going on with the wife, although we know that she is sad. Something’s wrong. We got that from the first conversation with her husband, when she was trying to make him understand how much the neighbor gets under her skin. Near the end of the film, she says to her husband (a great line): “I don’t know myself yet. Don’t tease me, Mahmood.” He gives her a look, suddenly gentle, and backs off. Okay. I won’t tease. Mahmood is so self-involved that he can’t really fathom what his wife is going through (we learn that she has had two miscarriages, and is pregnant yet again, but of course filled with fear that this one will end as well). He confides in Feizollah about the situation, and brushes it off, like, “You know how women get worked up about these things.” Feizollah is much more of a philosopher about things. He beams with happiness when he tells Mahmood he’s been married 10 years. He says that having a daughter has taught him patience, and that is a good thing. He also knows that life is possible without having children – children aren’t everything. Mahmood seems kind of cut off from this type of conversation. It’s not that Mahmood is arrogant, or openly a dick. It’s just that he’s detached. He hides behind his work and his intellectualizing of emotional events.
In the town there is a sheep in labor – she has been in labor for two days. Feizollah is worried about it – because it is his sheep, and his animals is how he scrapes out a living from the land. The women take over caring for the sheep. There is also a hugely pregnant woman in the town, and it is feared that she will give birth at any moment as well. The wife is surrounded by birth and impending birth. Everyone assumes that she must have an entire brood of children – she’s married, after all! She hides her pain about her fertility within her, but it starts to take over the whole film.
The film switches back and forth between the two men – and the wife back with the children – and there’s a bit of monotony in this structure that doesn’t quite serve the story. It drags. It’s meant to drag, I know that – this is not about its plot – it’s really just a day in the life … but it’s important to stick it out, to tolerate the draggy sections – in order to get to, first of all, the rawly beautiful end sequence (wow. I was surprised by how moved I was – beautiful use of music, too. Beautiful.)
And second of all, to a section where the kids are playing hide and seek with her – in two deserted trains which sit on an unused section of track. It’s where they play. The trains sit silent, open, and they are falling apart, rapidly being eaten up by the desert. The windows are broken, the doors and steps are rusted – there are compartments, old-fashioned North by Northwest compartments – lots of great places for kids to hide. The trains sit side by side. There are no kids in sight. But you can hear them calling to the wife, their voices echoing creepily – “Over here!” “Look over here!” “We’re behind you!” The great thing about the story-telling style of Iranian films is how they avoid, at all costs, saying anything on the nose. They do not lead you by the hand. I suppose part of this is because of having to deal with censors – the film-makers try to get away with as much as they can, without ever saying “Here is what this is about.” Sometimes that leads to opaque or rather boring stories – you wait for the crisis, or the conflict … but it doesn’t come, or it is so buried in symbols that you can’t even “get it” (although most Iranians would probably get it immediately). There are sections of Deserted Station where all that seems to be going on is the wife giving dictation classes to the students, and then letting them go off and have recess. There does not seem to be any urgency. We are not sure what we are looking at. But the hide-and-seek in the trains section is absolutely gorgeous – it’s like a poem, so yes – its language is symbols, metaphors. What we are looking at is a grown woman, walking between two deserted trains, as all the kids hide in the trains, calling out to her tauntingly. The scene goes on for much longer than we would expect, and there is no resolution. She doesn’t break down, she doesn’t speak out what she is thinking. We just see her wandering around, no kids in sight, but they are heard in the air, coming from every direction … and we already know her pain about children … so her search for the kids, her fruitless search through the empty dilapidated trains, is excruciating. There’s a moment near the end of the scene when she walks into an empty compartment and sits down. We aren’t sure what is happening. At that moment, we can see out the window – a train hurtling by – on the working tracks 100 yards away. The sound of the movement fills the air, and slowly, the camera closes in on her face. She sits there, still, and her eyes are closed. But Leila Hatami is such a good actress that I could feel her melancholy and her psychic pain vibrating on the surface of her skin. The eyes are so important for actors. Here, she does not use them, and she does not need them. Her sadness about children radiates out of her face, as the train shrieks by in the distance.
It’s a stunning sequence. Strangely powerful, and it retains much of its mystery. It’s hard to talk about. Because I want to talk about “what it’s about” … but that’s not really the point with a movie like Deserted Station.
The film has stayed with me.