This weekly series discusses the cultural and artistic implications of a selected foreign film.
In many ways, Forough Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black is more of a poem than a film. This may not be particularly surprising, as Farrokhzad today is mostly remembered, if at all in the West, for her modernist poetry, which was controversial, evocative and banned to post-revolution Iran. Yet despite the film’s censorship and Farrokhzad’s tragic death at age 30, she managed to be immensely influential to Iranian cinema, and helped lead the way for the Iranian New Wave that flourished in the late ’60s.
The House Is Black — Farrokhzad’s sole film — is probably a masterpiece. The 21-minute film essay depicts the everyday lives of men, women and children who inhabit a leprosarium in northern Iran. Shot in black and white in a cinema vérité style, a collage of jarring cuts and narrations that often sound like prayer imbue meaning to the film, which shares the same lyrical language and open-ended symbolism as her verse. Farrokhzad seems to write with her camera; she rhymes her visuals and sounds, trading a cohesive narrative for an abstraction of imagery.
Lines culled from the Koran, the Old Testament and Farrokhzad’s own unforgettable poetry are stitched together in voiceover to add or subtract context from the onscreen happenings. An artist whose work relies somewhat on juxtapositions, Farrokhzad films the sublime moments — children at play, villagers creating music, a woman brushing a girl’s hair — along with the uncomfortable: bandages being unwrapped, needles being injected, the blind intuiting their unsure movements.
What emerges is an interrogation of beauty and ugliness, and how those two things coexist in the world. There is, perhaps surprisingly, a lot one can learn by observing the empathy and gratitude that occurs in this Iranian leper colony. In just 20 minutes, The House Is Black is a documentary, a poem and most importantly, a portrait. Of what — a leprosarium or something larger — you decide. The final seconds of the film occur in complete blackness, as Farrokhzad says in a near-whisper: “O overrunning river driven by the force of love, flow to us, flow to us.” It is a plea, both for them and for us.
THE HOUSE IS BLACK is currently screening on YouTube.