Mixed emotions reach a peak of political intensity in “Hit the Road,” the Iranian director Panah Panahi’s first feature, and a great one. There’s no way to make any sense of the film without giving away a detail that remains undisclosed until midway through; any substantive discussion of the film entails spoilers. What’s more, the drama depends on this cagey silence, its emotional price, and its political motive. The movie (which opens on April 22nd) involves a family of four on a road trip in an S.U.V.—a journey that is shrouded in mystery and filled with evasive behavior.
“Hit the Road” is a tale of fear and cunning, a thriller of sorts that involves the high risks of a criminal scheme and an intrepid escape. It begins on the dirt shoulder of a highway, where the parents—the father, Khosro (Hasan Majuni), and the unnamed mother (Pantea Panahiha)—are dozing and Farid (Amin Simiar), the elder son and driver, is pacing around outside. Soon, the cell phone belonging to the younger, unnamed son (Rayan Sarlak), who appears to be about seven years old, begins to ring—he’d been forbidden to bring it, and the other family members have left theirs behind, too. The mother confiscates it, removes and destroys the SIM card, and buries the phone in a nearby field, marking the spot with a stone for the return trip. Moments later, back on the highway, the family realizes that they’re being followed, though it turns out to be a false alarm.
The spoilers begin here: the family, as it turns out, is heading toward the border so that Farid can be smuggled out of Iran and start a new life in another country. The motive isn’t clear, but he’s of age to do his two years of mandatory military service, and no Iranian man can apply for a passport without having fulfilled it. A trafficker has arranged the intricately plotted exfiltration at a shockingly high price: the family’s home and car. The paranoid secrecy that pervades the trip entails keeping its purpose from the boy, who is brilliantly imaginative and wildly impulsive. His parents don’t trust him to keep the secret in the presence of whomever they may encounter, and the journey is filled with odd and perilous meetings, including (in the film’s most sharply comedic sequence) a brush with a bike racer who gets a lift from the family after colliding with the S.U.V.
The premise of “Hit the Road” is the effort to circumvent a repressive government’s unjust laws. (Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2020 film “There Is No Evil” dramatizes one of the moral dangers that draftees face—namely, the possibility of being ordered to carry out an execution.) Above all, though, the movie is a love story, and a great one—it depicts the passionate bonds of a close family, and Panahi’s view of their love is all the truer and more vital for the acerbity and pugnacious candor of their relationships, the inescapable force of devotion and bonds of commitment amid anger, dismay, disappointment, seething resentment, and stifled incomprehension. The dialogue alone—and the film is a mighty torrent of intimate eloquence—catches the kaleidoscopic array of emotions that flicker and glare through even casual remarks, and the deep foundation of shared experiences on which the family’s every interaction, however minor, is intensified, as on a stage. The presence of the family’s dog, Jessy, whose mortal illness is also being concealed from the boy, adds another poignant touch that’s also a symbolic emblem of looming catastrophe.
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“Hit the Road” is also a tragicomedy, in which the anguish of separation is heightened by the dangers of the journey, leavened by hope for a better future, and balanced by family togetherness. The mother struggles to repress her pain with exaggerated displays of artificial gaiety, including faux-exuberant lip-synching to Iranian pop music, but, in a moment of quiet, she asks Farid not to leave. Khosro, a sharply candid cynic, carps from the back seat, to which he’s relegated by a broken leg in a cast, with observations of penetrating clarity and bitter skepticism. While Khosro, at a rest stop, is speaking by phone with the trafficker about signing over the house, Farid cranks up the volume of a song on the car radio to drown out the discussion, agonizing as it is to hear talk of the sacrifice. Yet, when his mother gets sentimental, he tells her to go home; she responds, “What home, rude boy?” For good measure, she adds, “Shithead.”
The family relationships are depicted through a torrential blend of jovial ribaldry and vulnerable confession, with doubts muttered alone and misgivings kept silent—not least because of the young boy, who’s one of the most irrepressible and exuberant wild cards in the recent cinema. Sarlak’s performance bursts with energy and intelligence, and lends a spontaneity to the elaborate dialogue and fanciful action of this freewheeling and freethinking character, who is still unspoiled in his view of the life ahead and confident of emotional impulses that haven’t yet been clobbered down. He charmingly frets about losing his cell phone lest he miss a call from one Ms. Fakhrai—not the woman of that name, who lives near the family’s home, but her daughter, his peer and friend, whom he intends to marry. His heedlessness risks consequences, as when he draws with a marker on the window of the S.U.V.—which has been borrowed and needs to be returned in pristine condition—or when he calls enthusiastically out the window to a bike racer, resulting in the crash.
The resulting scene, in which the family gives the athlete a lift to a safe haven, offers a philosophical dialogue of rare and giddy delight—about law and obedience and their effect on the inner life—that’s capped with a moment of whiplash irony to match the accident that launched it. The whole sequence is framed like a teeming bit of automotive theatre, in which rapidly ricocheting fine points (including the mother’s subtle, hinted reminder to Khosro not to speak freely) whirl around the practical lessons in political morality that arise. Panahi elevates the tautly dialectical action into grand drama by way of carefully crafted framings that heighten the confined spaces and vast landscapes alike. His visual compositions are essential elements of his world view, whether in a poised side-by-side image of Farid and his mother evoking ineffable love at a rest stop with a discussion of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or an unbearable moment of separation that’s ingeniously filmed from hundreds of feet away, with heartbreaking reserve that nonetheless captures both its frantic energy and its poignant intimacy. Panahi’s visual correspondence of elisions and separations replicates the silences and mysteries that mark the characters’ own adventure.
Though “Hit the Road” is the first feature by Panahi, who was born in 1984, it’s merely the first flowering of a life in the cinema: he’s the son of the director Jafar Panahi, whose past decade of work has been undertaken both clandestinely and in defiance of the authorities—and on whose films he has been working in a variety of roles, including that of an editor. In Cahiers du Cinéma, Panah Panahi says that, though he attended film school, “The best film school was at home, where all the conversations revolved around cinema and where all the soirées were full of movie people.” Jafar Panahi was arrested in 2010 on political charges; he has been making films while enduring house arrest, a suspended prison sentence, and an official ban on filmmaking. (Khosro’s limited movement with a cast on his leg is a remarkable symbol of the limits placed on the elder filmmaker.) Panah Panahi’s work, while very much in the vein of Jafar’s, extends its reach, dramatically and thematically, for another generation. The modern Iranian cinema was launched into international prominence, about thirty years ago, by the films of Abbas Kiarostami; Jafar Panahi was his assistant. Kiarostami’s films are marked by a passionately attentive, documentary-like detail, rooted in aspects of Iranian life that are largely banned from the screen—a symbolic cinema that disguises its symbols in local and practical details.
“Hit the Road” extends that lineage, as a work of practical realism that stands as a manifesto for the imaginative power of observation and for the political power of the imagination. The action breaks away from the modern highway into the deep country, from the modern state into the wild, as the family approaches the border by driving on a dirt road. (“Dirt Road” is the literal translation of the movie’s Farsi title.) An interaction with a shepherd that takes place in a kind of spoken code, the terrifying arrival of a masked motorcyclist, and the shocking vision of a gathering, in the wild, of families of other so-called “travellers” evoke an alternative, outlaw society of danger and hope. Panahi marks it at the limits of fantasy, in text and vision alike, as Khosro and the young boy link the family’s travels to a discussion about the Batmobile, matched by fantasy images that project father and son together, flying into outer space.