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Greetings again from the darkness. This is my third "first feature" from a writer/director this week, but there endeth any similarities. Ana Lily Amirpour presents the first ever Iranian romantic vampire thriller that blends the styles of Spaghetti Westerns, graphic novels and 1950's rebel flicks, while making a social statement regarding Muslim women.
This festival favorite is an expanded version of Ms. Amirpour's 2011 short film of the same title, and the use of black and white, combined with cinematographer Lyle Vincent's extraordinary photography, delivers a beautifully stark dream-like atmosphere that lends itself well to the sparse dialogue approach.
Despite minimal conversation, we quickly recognize Saeed (Dominic Rains) as the ultra-arrogant drug dealer and bullying pimp, Arash (Arash Marandi) as the hard-working dutiful nice guy who sees himself as a would-be James Dean, Hossein (Marshall Manash) as the drug-addicted dad who burdens his son, and Atti (Mozhan Marno) as the aging, powerless prostitute with little hope. There is even the street boy (Milad Eghbali) who sees all and says little and is the target of the film's most terrifying scene (and maybe one of the most terrifying bloodless scenes of any horror film).
What really stands out about this low-budget gem is the seamless and effective mixing of genres. In addition to the "vampire" moments, there are a couple of the most quietly erotic scenes that I can recall (including an ear-piercing), and even a quite humorous scene with an under-the-influence Arash mesmerized by a lamp post while wearing a Dracula costume and being observed by a real vampire.
The vampire is played perfectly by Sheila Vand, whose intoxicating eyes and subtle facial gestures convey all whether she is feeding her appetite, being gently seduced by Arash, or slowly coasting on her skateboard. Her only time to unleash pent-up emotions is the previously mentioned scene when she warns "Be a good boy". Otherwise, she is the lonesome vampire in search of connection who periodically weeds out the bad men – simultaneously improving society and empowering women.
It's an odd production as the characters speak Farsi, but filming took place outside Bakersfield, California in a locale that fits the story town's name, Bad City. Any influence of Iranian culture is only evident through interpretation and the excellent cast. The beautiful camera work is complemented by an outstanding and unusual soundtrack a combination that proves Ms. Amirpour's eye and feel for storytelling. The minimal dialogue approach is successful thanks to the atmospheric style and the talents of the cast (many of whom will be familiar to American TV and film audiences). It's an exciting first feature and has many anxiously awaiting the next project from Ana Lily Amirpour.
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