When it comes to judging film, or any art form, what metrics do we use? By what criteria can we say one film was good, or successful, or any other positive adjective, and another film was not? Without delving too deeply into philosophical quandaries about aesthetics, I think a good work of art, and certainly a good film, should make you feel something, and feel it strongly. A good painter, dancer, or director must think to themselves, “What do I want my audience to feel?”, and then, through their artistic prowess, carefully craft how the viewer reacts.
A perfect example of this is Sperm Whale (نهنگ عنبر), a 2015 film directed by Saman Moghadam. It tells the story of the life of one man, Arjang, and his love for his childhood sweetheart, Roya. The film spans over fifty years of Arjang’s life, covering both his failures and successes. I watched this film on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago at the AMC Loews Theatre in Georgetown as part of a Persian Flagship field trip. Besides my Persian Flagship colleagues, the film’s audience was largely Iranian or Iranian-American. The film was subtitled in English, and the audience seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the film, with the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter.
Stylistically and aesthetically, the film is very reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, and shares some of the film’s quirky humor, irreverent tone, and bright cinematography. Yet, despite its French influence, the film has a distinctly Iranian flavor, being so closely bound to contemporary Iranian history. Much of the film’s humor derives from this, but simultaneously transcends the bounds of culture-specificity to simply be funny.
For me, the most striking feature of this film was the director’s mastery of eliciting strong emotional reactions. For most of the film, this reaction was laughter, and the director expertly evoked everything from chuckles to belly laughs in almost every scene. Unlike in other films, the director didn’t have to resort to cheap jokes or overt satire, but rather masterfully created and exploited quotidien comedic situations to great effect. However, although the film was hilarious, the director’s real chops came through at the end, where Moghadam was able to bring the audience to tears, to elicit heartache and ultimately catharsis, as skillfully and organically as he elicited laughter. A good film can make you laugh, or make you cry, but a great film can make you do both, and make both reactions seem perfectly natural. For this reason, I suggest you watch Saman Moghadamś film Sperm Whale.