What hasn’t been emphasized enough about Aucun Ours (No Bears), the admirable film whose auteur, Jafar Panahi, is currently imprisoned in the terrible Evin prison in Tehran, is this.
The voices of Iran. Their tongues. Their musicality. Their hissed softness that suddenly amplifies into emphatic and heady vowels. Their song. Their light inflections. Their slow cadences.
There is also the body of Panahi. This omnipresent body, a little heavy, which starts out smiling and, as the drama unfolds, becomes mysterious and severe. This silent and contemplative body. That same body, radiating the energy of a resistant through logic, art, and passion. The body of a man history has chosen to explore every path of torment and misfortune. And his voice, too, speaking the words he is strangely stingy with, which he pronounces with even greater sweetness—a mix of distance and softness, of aristocratic airiness and weightiness.
His eye. His camera (hence his eye), doubled in the sense that Paul Claudel, in The Satin Slipper, invented the “double shadow.” Auteur and actor. Spy and spied upon. In a village that may be a chosen retreat or an imposed one, but which will clearly result, in his eyes, in a beautiful film that, conversely, is criminal—isn’t the image itself prohibited? The filmmaker’s equipment is the occasional cause of at least two misfortunes; the artist surveilled, called to account, censored, punished; and his modest house transformed into a Hitchcockian mousetrap under the chords of Bernard Herrmann.
And again Panahi’s body. You think of Amarcord and, even more so, Intervista. No apparent relationship between Pahani’s laconism, immense silences, long looks charged with thought as the film progresses, and the prodigious decorative chattery of the Italian master. But it’s the same objective camera. The same method of making the film and showing how it is made. The same centripetal camera fixed on the storytelling, acting artist who has skin in the game.
Who is Panahi here? A harassed filmmaker. Banned from cinema in his country and, step by step, in his village. Cursed. But therein lies the power. The filmmaker does not plead. He doesn’t defend himself. He’s not going elsewhere to see if it’s easier to film there. He could, of course. There are two unforgettable scenes that speak to this possibility. The one at night, where he advances up to the Turkish border before jumping back a step. And the daytime scene, enigmatic, at the end, where he recoils at the idea of leaving the country of his native tongue and his misfortune, of his genius and martyrdom. He just lifts his car’s handbrake into the engaged position. Panahi, the judge of Jafar. The dissident in the crosshairs of the filmmaker. Accused, staying—film if you can.
One must admire the unprecedented mise en abyme of the film. The hindered filmmaker directing, via Zoom, from the other side of the Turkish border, the Turkish scene that through the troupe of Iranian actors is revealed to be a kind of second prison. The film’s wedded couple—the splendid young woman whose unbound hair is like a bomb in Turkey as in Iran, and the lanky, weak intellectual, diabetic and tragically in love—caught, in real life, by real death.
Panahi, for his part, is the perpetrator, we suddenly realize, not for having filmed but of having photographed, thoughtlessly, a couple in an illegitimate love affair. And the final and most vertiginous mise en abyme: Yes, he photographed children; then, laterally, a wooded area where we see some feet; is it a couple? The young veiled girl comes like a ghost, terrified, to ask him for help, before disappearing. And what to make of the scene where the village, as one body, asks him to swear on the Quran that he never photographed this Romeo and Juliet. He answers, to everyone’s amazement, that instead of swearing, he will make a declaration, film it, and send a copy to all.
A word should be said of the villagers who harass him. First, softness. An obsequious, over-the-top respect, overplayed. Like Act II of Moliere’s Dom Juan … Then, as it plays out, under a shell of innocence, the inexorable strains of prejudice, a kind of rage, inquisitional hate, and violence—the very same, we come to understand, that by degrees can lead you to Evin prison. There are no bears in the village. No menacing, savage beasts. Because it’s the village itself, and Iran, and the skies over the cities of Iran, that are the bear.
There is something missing from the film: Tehran. Panahi’s city. The city he whiled away in, as a great artist, keeping to the essential: rolling film, now and forever. The city where, today, like in all the other cities of the country, free women, men, and children lead the true spiritual revolution that Iran hoped for and awaited. And the gang of mullahs who would, out of vengeance, transform this sublime land into a desert.
The persecutor is absent. But don’t we know that in great cinema, when it lives up to that name, it’s what’s missing that is most glaring?
No Bears premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize. The film recently sold for U.S. distribution; it is currently being distributed in France by Michèle Halberstadt’s ARP Selection.
Translation from the French for this article is by Matthew Fishbane.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, will premiere nationwide on May 5, 2023.