The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The House is Black (1963/Iran/dir. Forough Farrokhzad) appeared at #5 on my original list.
What it is • The House is Black is not a work of fiction, but the "documentary" description doesn't quite suit it. This is a film about death, about God, about play, about loneliness. It is about the feeling that can swell up inside of you on a bright day, as if you're lost inside a moment. It is about cold medical facts, and hard-earned hope that these facts can be applied to save lives - perhaps more importantly, to ease pain. The film is certainly about pain. And as a narrator tells us over a black screen in the opening seconds, it is about ugliness. It is about companionship in suffering and maybe above all, it is about empathy, an empathy the filmmaker feels for her subjects, and which she coaxes the viewers to feel as well. Empathy is not sympathy. Though commissioned and presented by a charity, the film does not ask us to gaze in horror or pity from afar. The first shot of the film, one of the most powerful shots I've ever seen, features a woman gazing at her own reflection in a mirror. We are watching her watch herself, as the camera moves closer. These camera movements are relentless, and the cutting even more so - several times a second during some rapid montages, dancing with the rhythm of the soundtrack (squeaks, chants, rumbles, repetitive noises picked up at the location). This film is important not just for its subject, but for how that subject is conveyed. Farrokhzad was a poet, and she narrates most of the film (after the stern introduction), softly reciting verses that evoke emotion through abstraction even as we are shown blunt, concrete images of faces, hands, and feet. These images are intercut with quick clippings of birds flying together, of a wheelbarrow rushing over rough turf, individual elements that make up the film. It is a film about poetry, and it is itself a poem. Most frames contain people, usually gazing into the camera lens, not as a challenge but as quiet assertion. There is not much talking, or writing, but the film takes its title from the final scene, which memorably contains both. A child, asked to offer examples of something ugly, names various body parts - a hand, a foot - and then giggles mischievously. This is a film about joy in the face of despair, joy not as mitigation but as relief, something natural that flows from day-to-day life because why wouldn't it? And then another person is asked to write a sentence on the board containing the word "black." He pauses, thinks for a moment, and then slowly, with difficulty, produces the following: "The house is black." This is also a film about sorrow, underlying everything else, the joy, pain, or fear. And yes, The House is Black is about leprosy. Almost everyone we see is leprous to varying degrees, some in early stages so that their affliction appears as a slight blemish, others shockingly encased within their own skin. The film is sobering, but to call it hard to watch isn't quite right. We, if we are fortunate enough not to already suffer from physical afflictions ourselves, quickly grow used to the sight of these people. The horror surrounds the film, in the neglect, the isolation, the maltreatment that facilitates the pain. Within the film is something else, pain yes, but also the dignity of existing, however temporarily, within a space created by an artist (Farrokhzad was so drawn to the people in the colony that she actually adopted one of the little boys when the dozen-day shoot ended, bringing him home with her). Farrokhzad, a strikingly beautiful and brilliant twenty-seven-year-old woman, a controversial, bold, and original artist celebrated at a young age for her talent with the written world, would be dead within five years, killed in a car crash in 1967. The House is Black soon became not just a memorial for those documented onscreen, but for the woman whose imagination and intelligence illuminated the film. It is twenty-two minutes, her only movie, and a masterpiece.
Why I like it •
When I saw it for the first time, The House is Black caught me by surprise. I mean that literally: the DVD menu was on when I walked out of the room and when I walked back in, the film had unexpectedly begun. So I missed the place-setting narration over black and was faced instantly with that first image, an image whose grace of expression took my breath away. Afterwards, I visited Allan Fish's review on Wonders in the Dark to share my first impressions. "While I expected ugliness and suffering, I was unprepared for the sheer poetry of the film," I wrote. That was seven years ago last week (the comment is dated October 25), and Allan's wonderful review was published five months earlier. Now he too has died, another layer of poignancy surrounding the movie, whose first viewing was a gift from him and Sam Juliano that keeps on giving. The film first came to my attention a few years earlier, when I was collating greatest-of-all-time lists. It didn't appear on too many, but made at least one or two. Allan's review was probably what encouraged me to finally seek it out, and though it is easily available online (now and likely back then) I'm glad I watched it on a TV set rather than a computer screen (and I could only imagine it would be even more powerful in a theater). Tonight, I did the same and was struck anew by how effortlessly Farrokhzad's perception engages us. Her style is gentle but firm, loose but decisive. I've seen the film several times over the years, featured images in several places (including the very front of my site's banner), and cited it here and elsewhere as one of my top five favorites. Yet I realize tonight, slightly embarrassed, that I had never followed up my interest in the film by exploring Farrokhzad's written poetry. Let me end, then, a few minutes after reading it for the first time, with a line from "Another Birth" (translated by A.Z. Foreman) published soon after this film premiered - a line that echoes my own journey with The House is Black through these past seven years:
"A form journeying along time's line
Inseminating time's dry line with form
A form aware of an image
Back from a mirror's feast
And that is how it is
That somebody dies
While someone abides..."
More from me • I have never written about The House is Black for this site before, but here is the comment I left under Allan's review. A clip appears at 0:38 in "Tuning In", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies".
How you can see it • The House is Black is on Vimeo and YouTube (there are multiple uploads) and can be rented on DVD from Netflix.
What do you think? • Which opening shots have had the biggest impact on you (here are some of my picks, including The House is Black)? What are your favorite films directed by acclaimed poets, and how do you see one form reflected in the other? If you are familiar with Iranian society, how has Farrokhzad's reputation evolved over the years and how has the treatment of leprosy changed since 1963?
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Yesterday: Stille Nacht I-IV (#6)
Tomorrow: Day of Wrath (#4)