(director/writer: Bahman Farmanara; cinematographer: Mahmud Kalari; editor: Abbas Ganjavi; music: Ahmad Pezhman; cast: Firuz Behjat Mohamadi (Memorial Sign Renter), Bahman Farmanara (Bahman Farjami), Hossein Kasbian (Abdollah), Reza Kianian (Dr. Arasteh), Parivash Nazariye (Farzaneh), Roya Nonahali (female hitchhiker), Mahtaj Noujoumi (Bahman’s Sister), Valiyollan Shirandami (Homayouni); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Morteza Shayesteh; New Yorker Films; 2000-Iran-in Farsi with English subtitles)

“An engrossing look at a whiny artist in modern Iran trying to deal with censorship.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bahman Farmanara’s last film in Iran was “Tall Shadows Of The Wind”–a never released film banned in 1979 by both the Shah and later by the new Islamic regime. “Smell of Camphor” is a semi-autobiographical drama, where he uses the fictional name of Bahman Farjami to be his alter ego. It’s an engrossing look at a whiny artist in modern Iran trying to deal with censorship (not being able to work) and the loss of his beloved wife. Its theme of a prosperous, educated, Westernized 55-year-old man concerned about death, reminds me of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 “Taste of Cherry” in both its political and personal aims. The earnest filmmaker with a hangdog expression, a caustic wit and an impressionable charm examines mortality, artistic freedom, political pressures and social ceremonies in fundamentalist Islamic Iran.

The fictional character of Bahman is making a documentary for Japanese TV on Iranian funeral rites. But what he really might be doing is preparing what he believes will be his own funeral, as he visualizes his own funeral in a Fellini-esque dream segment. The personal drama is built around a three-act play-like structure with chapters entitled: Act One: A Bad Day, Act Two: Funeral Arrangements, and Act Three: Throw a Stone in the Water.

For two decades, Iranian-born Bahman Farmanara could not make films in his homeland and was forced to work in film distribution in Canada and the U.S., leaving him with a haunted feeling that he was dead (being unemployed is equated to death). This death-like sentence placed on the filmmaker is the motivational force in this striking film, where Bahman shows a remarkable ability to observe society and laugh at his own shortcomings and an ability to survive in the post-Revolutionary period.

Bahman is a portly man who awakens to a morning call from his son Nima living abroad, whose wife Jasmine is expecting any day, and learns his son won’t be able to visit for his mother’s death anniversary memorial as he wishes to be near his wife. The depressed man is still mourning the death five years ago of his beloved wife Jaleh and feels that today will be a “bad day,” as the smoker with a bad ticker visualizes that his death is near. He is also depressed because most of his close personal friends have died.

The day starts off with Bahman giving a ride to a young battered woman (Nonahali), who tells him her unemployed husband beat her and her baby was born dead the other day. She is returning from the hospital to her husband and leaves in the car the dead baby. Bahman decides not to take a chance of being misinterpreted by the police and gets instead a doctor friend of his to secretly take care of the burial. The day continues with a string of bad events that include: the disappearance of his daughter’s intellectual husband (something not that unusual in the totalitarian state, where many intellectuals have experienced a similar fate without anyone being informed as to why); a visit to his wife’s grave-site where he discovers that the plot he purchased for himself adjacent to hers has someone else buried there and the seamy bureaucratic caretaker can only say that most husbands would not elect to be buried next to their wives after the marital discord they experienced during their lifetimes, as he callously offers another plot designation; this is followed by an unpleasant visit by his sister who nags him about not taking care of himself even after two heart attacks; and, there is the energy draining visit to his elderly Alzheimer suffering mom, whom he reads an Edgar Allan Poe story in the desperate hope that one word will spark a memory.

The gist of the film has Bahman researching the fine points of burial practices in Iran, which forces him to examine his own fears about existence and death. This leads Bahman to relate the smell of camphor to death and the sweet fragrance of jasmine to pleasant childhood memories.

It’s a deeply personal film about Bahman’s intense feelings, where the filmmaker states in all candor: “I do not fear death…I fear a futile life.” But maybe even more than that it’s a statement about not taking the simple pleasures of life for granted, especially in a country like Iran. It’s also a reminder to those in the free-world, they might not appreciate the small pleasures as much as someone who is oppressed. I found Bahman’s plight leading to something Proustian, as freedom is something lost by the artist but still fondly remembered from one’s youthful aspirations. It results in a film that entertains as a black comedy and provokes thought as a meditation on resilience in trying times.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”