After the screening of his seminal work of Iranian and world cinema at the UCLA Film and TV Archive, Bashu, the Little Stranger, Iranian filmmaker Bahram Beyzaie explained that the film, although spoken in two entirely different foreign languages, is not meant to be viewed with subtitles. The film has plenty of dialogue, and many would agree that most of it is not extraneous to the story. It is also clear that Beyzaie intends for the film to be viewed by an international audience that may or may not speak the languages in the film, which includes the first serious treatment of the northern Iranian language of Gilaki in film. All of this points to the necessity of subtitles in this film. So what exactly was Beyzaie getting at?
There is no doubt that language and communication are at the center of this deeply humanist and gentle, though unreservedly tragic, film about a child who has to find a new home in a strange town, after losing all of his family from war. The images and sounds of war and destruction overwhelm in the first few minutes, where we witness quick cuts of bomb explosions, a man getting sucked into the floor, total annihilation of homes; even the title sequence features red fighter jets entering and leaving frame. The rapid pace at which these shots progress helps form this language of war that we’re not supposed to comprehend. Who exactly is at war with whom? How is this man falling into the floor, as if sucked into a black hole? What’s the scale of this war? All we experience is a unforgiving sense of chaos and inexplicable violence.
As the cacophony of war (the Iran-Iraq War) dies down, we are introduced to Bashu (Adnan Afravian), a scrawny boy wearing a threadbare t-shirt, who sneaks into the back of a decrepit pickup truck, as it drives away from the devastation of the war to the northern part of Iran. Arriving at a farmland in a strange town, Bashu’s disorientation is complicated by the sounds of a language completely foreign to him, first uttered by two sweet-looking children as they curiously observe the dark-skinned stranger. Their mother, Na’i (Susan Taslimi), displays wariness towards Bashu at first, but begins to leave bowls of rice and what looks like Sangak (Iranian flatbread) for him, near the bush or scaffolding that he hides behind.
Realizing that Bashu doesn’t understand her language, Na’i begins to introduce simple Gilaki words to him. Although the language barrier frustrates both (Na’i suspects Bashu is mute at one point), Na’i’s unconditional kindness and Bashu’s isolation clearly communicate to each other, as he begins to warm to her. At times, it is unclear if it is Na’i’s character or Taslimi’s performance, which balances emotional intensity and graceful body language, that wins over Bashu’s and our hearts. In many of these seemingly mundane, slice-of-life scenes, as Bashu assimilates into the family, Beyzaie assuredly utilizes a hearty sense of humor to brush off the dust of immense tragedy on Bashu’s shoulders, reminiscent of the way Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda splices in light and effective humor into subjects concerning death and grief, most notably in Still Walking (2008).
However, everyone else in Na’i’s circle, including mostly family members, criticizes Na’i for fostering a stranger, which means having to feed ‘another mouth.’ It is apparent to Bashu, without understanding the language, that he is not welcome by these people. They express agitation at his presence, comment on his dark skin, and question Na’i’s hospitality. Operating a family farm and taking care of two small children by herself, Na’i acknowledges the stress she faces, but never wavers about her decision to keep him, even at the expense of antagonizing her community. Na’i explains Bashu’s situation to her husband, a war veteran who is gone for what seems like forever to look for work, through their letter correspondences, but he isn’t keen on feeding another mouth either.
The written language of Persian, we soon learn, becomes a link between Bashu and his new environment, since he could read and pronounce Persian words, despite not understanding Gilaki. While this cultural link doesn’t stop other kids from the largely fair-skinned community to bully him, it presents Bashu an opportunity to write a letter to Na’i’s husband for her. In addition to the writing, Bashu starts learning and doing the daily work around the house through observing Na’i, without her ever asking him. In a moving scene, Bashu takes care of a deathly-ill Na’i and the two children in almost the exact manner the she does for him in the beginning, when it looks like he isn’t going to make it.
Many motifs in this film indicate the limiting nature of verbal language, which, when spoken by people in the village they live in, mostly bears hostility and resentment. The language that connects transcends human communication, such as when Na’i mimics the cries of hawks flying in the sky in order to notify them of food, or the irritating sound of a predator that serves to scare wild pigs away from their crops; sometimes, it is the diegetic music, Bashu’s flute-playing and drum-banging, that communicates his devotion to assisting the family in growing the crops (he’s been told that the music helps the crops grow, which, despite the absurd notion, sounds out a heartwarming note near the end). Other times, it is the way Beyzaie’s camera, conducted by cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh, that seems to dance along, in the form of dolly moves, pans and tilts, with the movements of the characters and the fluid rhythm of Beyzaie’s own editing, creating a dynamic film language that bonds Bashu and Na’i.
Verbal language, to Bashu, only confuses him and exacerbates his already unbearable alienation, which is what Beyzaie intends for the audience to experience. Seeing the film with subtitles, we have the privilege of understanding both languages as they are spoken, thus a little ahead of all characters at all times, stripping away a crucial part of the alienating experience. The relationship arc between Bashu and Na’i, then, from strangers to family, plays out less satisfyingly than it should. Without the subtitles, the non-verbal communication between the two takes center stage, which presents a more challenging, but overall more rewarding experience for us, as we, along with Bashu, slowly and surely overcome the language barrier from the beginning.
For Iranian cinema, this head-on confrontation with language barrier presents a unique and multidimensional understanding of Iranian culture that challenges its misguided reputation as a monolith. While it is counterintuitive to watch a foreign language film without its subtitles, Beyzaie might have crafted a singular example that defies this presumption, one that continues to exist in 2018.