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Hit the Road

Just as his father Jafar Panahi has across his own career, first-time writer/director Panah Panahi explores life in Iran today in this beautiful and bittersweet road movie.
By Sarah Ward
September 16, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
September 16, 2022
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How fitting it is that a film about family — about the ties that bind, and when those links are threatened not by choice but via unwanted circumstances — hails from an impressive lineage itself. How apt it is that Hit the Road explores the extent that ordinary Iranians find themselves going to escape the nation's oppressive authorities, too, and doesn't shy away from its political subtext. The reason that both feel ideal stems from the feature's filmmaker Panah Panahi. This isn't a wonderful movie solely due to its many echoes, resonating through the bonds of blood, and also via what's conveyed on-screen and reality around it, though. It's a gorgeously shot, superbly acted, astutely written and deeply felt feature all in its own right, and it cements its director — who debuts as both a helmer and a screenwriter — as an emerging talent to watch. But it's also a film that's inseparable from its context, because it simply wouldn't exist without the man behind it and his well-known background.

Panah's surname will be familiar because he's the son of acclaimed auteur Jafar Panahi, one of Iranian cinema's best-known figures for more than two decades now. And Jafar's run-ins with the country's regime will be familiar as well, because the heat he's felt at home for his social commentary-laden work has been well-documented for just as long. The elder Panahi, director of This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain and more, has been both imprisoned and banned from making movies over the years. In July 2022, he was detained again merely for enquiring about the legal situation surrounding There Is No Evil helmer Mohammad Rasoulof and Poosteh director Mostafa Aleahmad. None of the above directly comes through in Hit the Road's story, not for a moment, but the younger Panahi's characteristically defiant movie is firmly made with a clear shadow lingering over it.

When filmmaking becomes a family business, the spectre of the parent can loom over the child, of course — by choice sometimes, and also purely thanks to their shared name. In the first category, Jason Reitman picked up his father Ivan's franchise with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, for instance; Gorō Miyazaki has helmed animated movies for his dad Hayao's Studio Ghibli, such as Tales From Earthsea, From Up on Poppy Hill and Earwig and the Witch; and Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral and Possessor are chips off The Fly and Videodrome great David Cronenberg's body-horror block. Panahi's Hit the Road also feels like it has been handed down, including in the way it spends the bulk of its time in a car as Jafar's Tehran Taxi and 3 Faces did. That said, it feels as much like the intuitive Panah is taking up the same mission as Jafar as someone purely taking after his dad. 

Hit the Road's narrative is simple and also devastatingly layered; in its frames, two starkly different views of life in Iran are apparent. A mother (Pantea Panahiha, Rhino), a father (Mohammad Hassan Madjooni, Pig), their adult son (first-timer Amin Simiar) and their six-year-old boy (scene-stealer Rayan Sarlak, Gol be khodi), all unnamed, have indeed done as the movie's moniker suggests — and in a borrowed car. When the film opens, there's no doubting that the kid among them sees the world, and everything in general, as only a kid can. The mood with the child's mum, dad and sibling is far more grim, however, even though they say they're en route to take the brood's eldest to get married. Their time on the road is tense and uncertain, and also tinged with the tenor of not-so-fond farewells — and with nary a glimmer of a celebratory vibe about impending nuptials.

If the boy senses the sorrow hanging thick in the van, it doesn't trouble him; existence is simple when you're just a kid in a car with your family. Initially, he plays with a makeshift keyboard drawn onto the cast over his dad's broken leg. Throughout the ride, he chatters, sings, does ordinary childhood things and finds magic in the cross-country journey. He throws a tantrum when, not long after the feature starts, the family has to stop to hide his mobile phone. And, he shows zero knowledge about what eats at the rest of his relatives. But mum worries they're being followed, and just worries overall; big brother has little time for any frivolities, preoccupied as he is with the future ahead; and dad is gruff but caring, torn between his physical ailments and the vastly different situations surrounding his two offspring. In the back, their dog Jessy is also unwell, another truth that's being kept from boy and complicates the vehicle's dynamic.

Every venture away from home, whether during a leisurely drive or for more serious reasons, spills out its joys, thrills, woes and secrets as it unfurls; that's the best way to watch Hit the Road as well. Cinema's second-generation Panahi crafts a bittersweet and beautiful film that's alive with minutiae, and with moments that overflow with insight and emotion — and, as lensed by Ballad of a White Cow cinematographer Amin Jafari, with as much feeling conveyed visually as via the movie's pitch-perfect performances. Sarlak's lively portrayal and the detail that comes with it says everything that's needed about trying to claim a slice of normality within Iran today, and how tricky that is. The feature's stunningly shot frames are just as telling, every sequence adding meaning and spectacle. Three in particular, all late in the piece and involving fraught exchanges, nighttime stories and heartbreaking goodbyes, rank among the most mesmerising images committed to celluloid in recent years, in fact.

In one such standout scene backdropped by a misty field, the camera remains at a distance as it observes the family splintering. In its sense of remove, it lets their ordeal act as a broader portrait, serving up a statement via a microcosm. In another glorious moment, father and son take in the evening sky and also appear to surreally float within it — in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the other son names as his favourite movie. In the third scene, light and movement carve through a hillside like much has carved through the film's central family and their country. Hit the Road includes delightful to-camera sing-alongs, too, and deadpan humour, plus striking shots of both sandy and verdant landscape. It's clear-eyed and also dreamy, weighty yet comic, intimate as well as sprawling, and realistic but playful. It's a fable, a snapshot and a message in one, and it's as tender as it is heartbreaking. Hit the Road is a movie to travel along several routes with, as Panahi does, each fork along the way as revelatory as the end destination.

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