Iranian Cinema is a rich and diverse cinema that has been in existence since the 1930s amidst oppressive regimes, censorship and even in the face of exile. The history of film as an art form in Iran dates back to the pioneering days of cinema when the first movie theatre opened in Tehran in 1904. Film was less than ten years old at the time and many Iranians flocked to cinemas to watch these primitive masterpieces. However, it would be another 25 years before Iran would develop its own national cinema, a cinema of morality, humanity, abandon and integrity. Starting with the opening of the first film school in 1925, an Iranian national cinema quickly began to develop. Since then, cinema has served as an ambassador for Iran, the heart and soul of a country marred by years of instability. As a result Iranian national cinema has become an engaging, chaotic, soulful and poignant cinema. It remains a true testament to the resilience and industrious nature of the Iranian people and serves as a veracious voice through which Iran can tells its varied and compelling stories. This is a list of the 15 essential Iranian films of all time.
1. The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)
2. The Brick and The Mirror [aka Brick and Mirror] (Ebrahim Golestan, 1965)
3. The Cow (Daryush Mehrjui, 1969)
4. Still Life (Sohrab Shahid-Saless, 1974)
5. The Runner (Amir Naderi, 1985)
6. The Cyclist (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1987)
7. Close Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
8. A Moment of Innocence [aka Bread and Flower Pot] (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)
9. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
10. The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998)
11. The Color of Paradise (Majid Majidi, 1999)
12. The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, 2000)
13. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
14. Turtles Can Fly (Bahman Gobadi, 2004)
15. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
You might immensely know Iran, but how well are you familiar with Iran’s epic film industry? We have curated for you, a list of some of the best, if not literally the best, feature films that were introduced to the whole world within the last 50 years. Some of the names might be familiar, like internationally-recognized Asghar Farhadi, with his 2011 film “A Separation”, earning the Best Foreign Film award at 83rd Academy Awards ceremony. Or the critically acclaimed “Children of Heaven” by Majid Majidi. If you have a taste for deep dives into the cinematic and artistic history of one of the Middle East’s most vibrantly creative atmospheres, you will enjoy this three-part journey. Read more below to get started with the first 11 Iranian films out of 33 that you conspicuously should consider watching.
1. Bashu, the Little Stranger
A survey from 150 Iranian critics and professionals showed in the best Persian movie magazine, World of Picture, Bashu was voted as “The Best Iranian Film of All Time”. According to the credits, It was the film’s ability to promote social commentary in a subversive government that made it noteworthy for all times.
The movie takes place during the war of Iran-Iraq when the southern part of Iran became a battlefield and everything was turning into ashes. Bashu is the name of a southern boy who loses his family and his house. Consequently, he runs away for his life and hides in the back of a truck. The destination of the truck is a small village in the north of Iran and this is when everything begins. He finds his way into a family and their good-hearted mother who is called “Nai” in the movie.
This 1989 movie is made by the great Iranian director, Bahram Beizai. Some of the best actors of the time act in this movie such as Susan Taslimi, who is acting and directing in Sweden nowadays. Bahram Beizai uses some contrasts such as North and South, black and white, and dialectical differences. The director criticizes ethnocentric Persian nationalism while marking the tense relationship between nationalism and ethnicity. It is worth mentioning that Bashu was the first Iranian movie to use the northern language of Iran, Gilaki. What is more interesting is that all the actors were northern and they were all fluent in speaking “Gilaki”.
2. The Scent of Joseph’s Shirt (Booye Pirahane Yousef)
Ghafoor is a Taxi Driver whose son was allegedly martyred during the war but he wouldn’t believe it. Although all the evidence shows that his son is dead and everyone believes so, he is still waiting for his beloved son, Yousef (Joseph). Then one day at the airport Ghafoor encounters a strange woman Shirin, who has traveled from Europe to Iran looking for his brother, Khosrow, a missing soldier at war. Both start searching for their loved ones.
95% of the film takes place at night to show the claustrophobia of prisoners of war. The ugliness of, war, the pain of loss, and waiting for someone is shown in the most magnificent way in this movie with a piece of elegant music composed by Majid Entezami which turned to a masterpiece and a memorable soundtrack for Iranians.
3. Sperm Whale (Nahang-e Anbar)
A nice, smooth, and hilarious comedy directed by Saman Moghadam in 2015. It starts with the life story of Arjang, who was born in the 60s. From his childhood days, he is in love with his friend Roya, who is a girl desperately trying to climb up the social latter each day of her life. You will dive into the life of Arjang and all the incidents that happen to him as he is madly in love with Roya.
Iran is very open to the comedy. The number that shows the sale of the movie in the cinema is proof of this fact. Iranian’s watched this movie over and over again in the theater’s cause it was pure comedy. You can laugh, you can feel pity for the protagonist of the film, played by Reza Attaran, one of the most famous comedians, and the other glamorous performances by Mahnaz Afshar and Vishka Asayesh. Another thing which makes the movie worth watching is the lifestyle alternation that you get to see during the movie. It somehow shows the history of Iran from the time of Shah, until the present era. Sperm Whale is a comedy that you shouldn’t miss watching. Grant yourself some laugh with watching this hilarious must-see movie.
4. Ice Age (Asr-e Yakhbandan)
The Ice Age movie was made in 2015 and it caught a lot of attention among regular people and critics. This drama movie goes through the life of Babak and Monireh. The difficult social situation causes Babak to work a lot and him not being present at home causes a deep gap between him and his wife. Therefore, Monireh gets involved in another relationship which leads her to drug addiction and wickedness.
The movie is taboo-breaking in Iran since it shows women using drugs. Besides, it shows a woman’s affair which is unexpected to be shown in Iranian movies. In addition, another social issue that is brought up in the movie is the controversial predicament of “Agha Zadeh”. It means being born in an important political family and therefore, being allowed to live an aristocratic life under the privilege and immunity of their family name.
Another aspect of the movie which makes you sit down and watch the movie till the end is its amazing edit which brought an award to the movie in Fajr Film Festival. You will see the story carrying on by the view of different people and it continues until you see what has really happened.
One last thing that makes this movie worth watching is the amazing work of actors and the director. The creative Mostafa Kiayee has done a perfect job in choosing actors such as Mahtab Keramati, who has performed one of the best plays of her career, Farhad Aslani and Sahar Dolatshahi who won the award for the best supporting actress in Fajr Film Festival.
5. Felicity Land (Sa’adat Abad)
Three wealthy Iranian couples are gathered together for a birthday party. At first glance it seems that they have the best life, they are so happy with their lives, and they are literally in the felicity land. However, each of them is keeping a secret from their spouses.
The first interesting point of the movie is its name. It has an irony since Sa’adat Abad (Felicity Land) is one of the rich neighborhoods of Tehran. When you hear the name of this neighborhood, you may think that they are also happy inside their luxurious life. Also, you’ll see an ideal life in the movie. They have the perfect wife and husband, they are rich and nothing is missing, but then you will understand the missing parts of their lives one by one. All these characteristics have come together to make a great movie that is completely worth watching. The characters were directed by Maziar Miri and the actors who transfer these feelings in the best possible way are Hamed Behdad, Leila Hatami, Hengameh Ghaziani, Mahnaz Afshar, Hossein Yari, and Amir Aghaee.
If you are a fan of Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch, Hamoun must be the first Iranian movie you watch. The middle-class Hamid Hamoun has been married to an artist named Mahshid for seven years. However, Mahshid is becoming increasingly frustrated with their existence and feels that Hamid is somehow holding her back from her true creativity. When she asks for a divorce, Hamid struggles to come to terms with it. In a series of dream sequences that resemble the work of Fellini, Hamid tries to piece together what went wrong. Known as Dariush Mehrjui’s greatest masterpiece, this compelling film uses subtle humor to tell the story of one man’s heartbreaking loss.
This artistic movie takes a lot of thinking to make you understand the whole thing. One thing that makes the movie a masterpiece is the flashbacks and dreams that Hamoun sees. His work is mostly inspired by Fellini, the great Italian filmmaker. Not everyone likes Hamoun, however, if you are a cinema lover you will enjoy every sequence of Hamoun with the spectacular performance of Khosrow Shakibaee and Bita Farahi.
This 2008 movie is the story of Mina and Morteza who have been married for 10 years. Mina was Morteza’s student in the university and they were madly in love, but then after a while, her love vanishes and she decides to leave Morteza and immigrate to Canada to study. However, everything changes when Mina’s older sister shows up.
Canaan is a nice and smooth movie that catches your attention with a simple story, amazing soundtracks, and most importantly breathtaking performances. Every minute of the movie you get to see the best acts of some of the best Iranian actors such as Mohammad Reza Forotan, Taraneh Alidoosti, and Bahram Radan. The wonderful composing of Christophe Rezaee cannot be ignored. He has altered the feelings into sounds that directly goes into the audience’s heart. All and all this movie is one of the best Iranian movies that you must watch.
8. Crazy Rook (Rokhe Divaneh)
This drama thriller is the story of a group of youth online community members, roaming the city of Tehran, looking for good times. Though one night, this gathering results in an unfortunate event. What starts as a prank, unfolds into a complicated situation as they become entangled in blackmail.
Examining the true meaning of friendship and the way we portray ourselves on social media, “Crazy Rook” is a riveting and sometimes harrowing journey which will take you on the edge of your seat throughout. The film won the Best Director and Best Film awards at the Fajr International Film Festival. With a cast full of young talented actors, a new story, and a wonderful way of telling the story, this movie is definitely one of the movies you shouldn’t miss watching.
9. About Elly
The 2009 drama movie directed by the 2 times Oscar winner, Asghar Farhadi, is the story of a group of former classmates that travel to the north of Iran. Sepideh, performed by Golshifteh Farahani, is the person who managed this trip and invited her daughter’s Kindergarten teacher, Elly, to meet their single friend, Ahmad who has come from Germany recently. They rent a villa right in front of the Caspian Sea. Everything seems perfect and they are spending a great time together until the moment that Elly suddenly disappears. Her mysterious disappearance sets in motion a series of deceptions and revelations that threaten to shatter everything they hold dear.
Asghar Farhadi won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival for the film. The film was also nominated for 10 awards at the 27th Fajr International Film Festival where Farhadi won the Crystal Simorgh for the best directing. About Elly was also Iran’s official submission for the competition in the Foreign Film section at the 82nd Academy Awards.
10. The Lizard (Marmoulak)
Marmoulak is a heartwarming and saddening tale about a recently jailed petty thief disguises as a Mullah and succeeds in escaping, but has to stay in the Mullah’ role longer than he expected to. This is the story which is said to be an Iranian remake of the movie “We’re not Angels” acted by Robert De Niro and Sean Penn. However, the Iranian one has its own point of view because of all the religious limitations and laws in Iran.
You’ll have the chance to laugh a lot during the movie with the nice jokes and situations of the scenes. However, you might have difficulty with the cultural jokes; so watch it with a local if you can. Marmoulak is full of gentle humanist irony which becomes sadly evident but never too overt. Parviz Parastui gives an outstanding performance in the lead, and all the supporting roles are also acted at a highly competent level. The story and cinematography are quite professional as well. After a very successful run, Marmoulak was banned in Iran as sacrilegious. But, I can assure you that every Iranian has watched it several times and it is one of their favorite movies of all times. So, you won’t be having a problem watching this movie. Watch and enjoy.
11. A Cube of Sugar
Somewhere on the outskirts of modern Iran, at a traditional old house in Yazd with a fragrant tree-shaded internal yard, a whole family is ceaselessly making wedding preparations. The youngest girl of the family is getting married to a decent boy, who is studying abroad, which is the perfect reason for an elegant family reunion. Everyone are ready for the joyous event; however, is a single cube of sugar enough to bring sweetness and happiness?
It is said by some critics that “A cube of sugar” is a sweet Iranian movie. The movie is filled with unending beauties that make you wish that the movie never finishes. The colorful clothes, the “Yazdi” accent of the actors, and the amazing atmosphere of the house are the things that make the movie worth watching. The movie intended to be Iran’s official submission to Oscars 2013 but it withdrew protesting against “Argo”.
Iranian modern poet, Sohrab Sepehri has a poem which suits the movie: “Life is a small bit like a cup of tea and love is right next to it like a cube of sugar”