REVIEW: DVD Release: The Hunter

Film: The Hunter
Release date: 28th February 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 92 mins
Director: Rafi Pitts
Starring: Rafi Pitts, Mitra Hajjar, All Nicksaulat, Hassan Ghalenoi
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: Iran/Germany

A German-Iranian co-production might sound like an unappealing cinematic curio, but this thriller by writer, director and leading man Rafi Pitts is a work of universal simplicity and masterly execution.

Ali (Pitts) is a nightwatchman and ex-con whose one desire is to spend more time with his wife and daughter. When his loved ones are killed in crossfire between police and demonstrators, Ali climbs onto a bluff overlooking the highway and drills bullets from his hunting rifle into the windscreen of a police car.

His revenge exacted, he flees from the city to the forests where he feels at home. But the authorities – equally well versed in the concept of payback - are hot in pursuit…

Watching The Hunter, the comparison that comes inevitably to mind is A Short Film About Killing. Like Kieslowski's masterpiece, this is a doom-laden story filled with pungent silences and told in a clipped, eccentric manner that distils it to its essence. Again like the great Polish director, Pitts has the knack of framing a shot in such a way that the elements within it spring into tension. Because of this, you never feel at ease, even during the relatively becalmed early scenes as Ali puts in the hours at his unloved job and commutes along endless motorways whose oppressive, overhanging pressed-steel hoardings seem like embodiments of a life straitened by circumstance.

Where Pitts differs from Kieslowski is in his decision to step in front of the lens. Portraying a private man who shows little on the outside even when things are at their most tragic, his performance is all about someone dying from the inside out, poisoned by an inexpressible fury. When he receives the news of his wife's demise from an obtuse police inspector, he makes no obvious reaction, but the muscles around his jaw slowly constrict until it looks like he's going to swallow his own tongue. He becomes an old man before your very eyes.

And yet for all its moody subject matter The Hunter isn't an oppressive film, and here is another point of departure from Kieslowski's tale of murder and retribution. Partly this is to do with the impressive location shooting. Director of photography Mohammad Davudi does a fine job at capturing the eerie beauty of northern Iran, whether it be the humid, deeply-forested Gilan and Golan regions or the turbulent Caspian sea. There's a particularly striking car chase through winding, fog-bound hill-passes that will have Hollywood location scouters sighing with envy (Davudi has just as startling an eye for urban ugliness – witness the horrendous blanched-concrete stairwell leading to Ali's apartment). Of course, good cinematography doesn't necessarily make a good movie, but between them Pitts and Davudi have managed to imbue each frame with a kind of far-sighted, tender resignation.

This is especially evident in the film's superb last act – essentially a three hander between Ali and the two bickering policemen sent to capture him (a corrupt veteran and a youngster on national service, whose view is: “Who doesn't have a problem with the police?”) Not to go into details, but an air almost of the Theatre of the Absurd creeps in as the weather and the forest combine to cut the trio down to size. It's an unexpected change of tack, but one which Pitts the director handles with enormous feeling for mood, while Pitts the thespian delivers a tour-de-force of near silent acting.

There's no denying that it's Pitts who dominates on screen, but cumulatively the rest of the cast bring their own special flavour to The Hunter. Unhampered by Western notions of hamming it up, they deliver fresh, unaffected performances which act as a counterfoil to the studied, deliberate mise-en-scène. Ghalenoi in particular makes his unwilling policeman believably opaque, frustrating any desire the viewer might have to label him as good or bad.

Although you can't help suspecting that there are nuances to The Hunter (especially in the depiction of the police) which only an Iranian audience will fully appreciate, for the most part this is a story which transcends national boundaries. Replace political repression with economic blight and Pitt's nightwatchman with a blue-collar worker, and the same events could play themselves out in some Midwest steel town, with just the same coldness on the part of officialdom, and the same recourse to violence from the embattled everyman. By telling a story that could happen almost anywhere, Pitts has become a figure to reckon with on the international stage.

Far more than just a curiosity, The Hunter is a fine film, by any standards; intense, lyrical and with some lovely woodland settings. Viewers will soon forget that they're camped on the outskirts of world cinema as they settle back to enjoy this gripping tale of a man on the run. JW

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