To Cross a Border: "Endless Borders" review

English Daily #2
Endless Borders (2023) / Regional Panorama
Abbas Amini
Germany/Iran/Czech Republi
13.7 12:30 Cinema House Grand Hall
13.7 18:30 Moscow Cinema Red Hall

Iranian director Abbas Amini was born in Abadan, a heavily Arabic-speaking city in the country’s southern Khuzestan province. Khuzestan was almost entirely deserted in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War after a series of attacks depicted in the beginning of Bahram Beizai’s Bashu, The Little Stranger (1989). Bashu, about an Arabic-speaking Khuzestani orphan who finds refuge with a Gilak woman and her family near the Caspian Sea, is among Iran’s most beloved films. It also serves as something of a natural reference point for Amini’s latest film, Endless Borders.

Here, Amini relocates his concerns to Balochistan, an ethnic region that includes parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where Ahmad (Pouria Rahimi Sam) serves in exile as a teacher despite his partner being imprisoned in Tehran for the same offense. The film begins, like Bashu, with a panoramic, documentarian sensibility, as we come to understand, through dialogue or brief sequences, the region’s electrical shortage, the plight of local refugees, and Ahmad’s own goals and challenges as both teacher and exile.

With its setting established, the film hones its focus on a teenage girl sold as a wife by her indebted family to a much older man and her illicit, mutual romance with the son of the village chief, Baloj. Baloj plays a role in transporting refugees out of Balochistan to Iran proper (which the characters all refer to as if it were a different country) but is postponing the transfer of the girl and her family. Much of the plot involves conflicts of religion, customs and culture among the various ethnic groups at play. These are only occasionally clarified by dialogue, making for a narrative that is easy to follow in its generalities but admirably difficult in its specificities.

Formally, it’s a bit unfortunate that the film falls into the competent but conventional aesthetic of handheld, wide-angle shots and muted color palettes that have become the de facto favorite of the festival circuit. Even the third act, which trades in the mechanics of a thriller for more grounded examinations of the pair of central couples is proficient but anodyne. The interactions among the four ought to prompt the viewer to reflect on how concepts of imprisonment, exile, nationhood, and home resonate across their distinct situations, but Endless Borders again stops short. Where moments of striking clarity in Bashu transformed the film from a realist social drama to a refined artistic statement, Endless Borders, unfortunately, remains in want of such a moment.

Forrest Cardamenis

This review was written as part of the GAIFF Critics Workshop