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Jun 16, 2023

25 Essential Iranian Films You Can Stream Right Now

By Tiara Ataii

Historically, poetry was Iran’s most prominent cultural export. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, however, movies have carried the country’s artistic banner through the threat of censorship and the regime’s crackdown on filmmakers. Iranian movies are unlike anything Hollywood produces: Many break the fourth wall in their attempts to shed light on the injustices of modern Iranian society because, in a country where you can expect to be arrested multiple times during your film’s production, movies are not simply artistic expression but rather an agent in a filmmaker’s life. Yet despite this (or rather because of it), many Iranian movies are difficult to view in the West.

Iranian film hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves outside of the country’s flourishing pirated-DVD industry — a black market that lets even the most controversial films still be seen in Iran — for a few reasons. Sanctions and the Islamic regime’s distaste for all things western have prevented Iranian movies from being shown on most mainstream streaming sites abroad; arrests and travel bans prevent filmmakers from publicizing their work; and the film industry’s association with opposition to the regime means the Iranian government rarely puts forward even the most acclaimed directors’ work for international awards competitions.

Yet the past few years have seen the most internationally acclaimed Iranian films make their way to streaming services — a boon for cinephiles as well as those looking to get to know the country better through its cinematic tradition, which is rooted in social justice. Here are 25 essential Iranian movies available to stream or watch as VOD, including classic hybrid documentaries, psychological dramas, and gory thrillers that attest to the terrifying reality of life under theocracy. Pick and choose from this list or watch them in succession to be taken on a journey through films that dovetail one another’s discourse on such topics as masculinity, women’s rights, the harsh conditions of rural life, and the importance of film as a form of resistance.

Taxi Tehran (2015)

Directed by Jafar Panahi 

In 2010, the Islamic regime banned renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi from working on the basis that his movies constitute “anti-government propaganda.” His response was to interpret the ban as prohibiting him only from directing, arguing that nothing was preventing him from being in front of the camera. From this loophole (albeit one the regime eventually arrested him for exploiting) emerged a series of films in which Panahi plays himself.

Taxi Tehran, which won the top prize at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, is his most joyous, petulant response to the ban. In the film, Panahi moonlights as a taxi driver; using his dashboard camera, he records discussions on capital punishment, freedom of artistic expression, and crime with his passengers — including the now-imprisoned human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. A brilliant introduction to Iranian film, Taxi Tehran is characteristic of the industry’s refusal to cave to regime pressure and how this has created a distinctive cinematic language.

A Separation (2011)

Directed by Asghar Farhadi 

The first Iranian film to win an Academy Award, taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, A Separation marked Asghar Farhadi as a director who invites viewers to make a judgment on the personal lives of others and then crowds this judgment with the complexities of life until it can no longer stand. As the title suggests, the film depicts a couple driven to divorce who are unable to agree on whether they should stay in Iran to look after the husband’s ailing father or migrate for the sake of their daughter’s future.

Aside from the intricate discussion of psychology and modern family dynamics, A Separation is one of the most delicate handlings of religion and how it interacts with class in Iranian cinema, as Farhadi juxtaposes a secular, urban, middle-class couple with a religious, working-class family from the south of Tehran, about whom they have a number of unsavory preconceptions. Farhadi makes his point best as you spend the next few weeks wondering whether things could have turned out differently in this domestic drama with no real answers other than that life is simply too complicated.

Close-up (1990)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami 

In the 1980s, director Abbas Kiarostami read about Hossain Sabzian, a day laborer who convinced a woman he met on the bus that he was the illustrious director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and that her family would star in his new film. Obsessed by the tale, Kiarostami dropped the production he was working on and convinced Sabzian, the family, and even the judge who adjudicated the case to reenact the story.

The result is a character study filmed as if it were a courtroom transcript inviting the viewer to question whether we may all be living behind our own façades. Close-up remains one of the most influential works in Iranian cinema — there’s a direct line from it to Farhadi’s procedural dramas and the metatextual tradition whereby directors like Panahi break the fourth wall by appearing in their own work.

A Hero (2022)

Directed by Asghar Farhadi 

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, A Hero has all the hallmarks of a Farhadi film. Much like A Separation before it, the movie focuses less on drawing a grand arc for a plot than on treating its characters like atoms colliding, homing in on each microdecision and mistake.

Based on a true story, it depicts a man who becomes a local celebrity after he returns a handbag containing several gold coins to its owner despite being in prison for a debt the money could help him to repay. Before long, though, his family, his community, the prison management, and the media start picking apart the protagonist’s story and his intentions. A Hero is a reflection on the extent to which we’re all performing a version of ourselves that we wish we could be and points a finger at us for pining for “perfect” people who cannot exist.

See You Tomorrow Elina (2011)

Directed by Rakhshan Banietemad 

Rakhshan Banietemad is known as the First Lady of Iranian Cinema, though the fruits of her 40-year career are relatively unknown abroad. In one of her more recent works, the documentary See You Tomorrow Elina, Banietemad shadows her daughter’s kindergarten teacher as she keeps her pupils afloat during the turbulence of the Iranian Green Movement of 2009 to 2010, which saw mass protests over the widely contested reelection of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The oasis of the kindergarten isn’t enough to keep out the turmoil on the streets; when the kindergartners are asked to sing a song, one chooses the pacifist anti-regime song “Put Your Gun Down,” and children who have witnessed a public execution come to school and describe a man “stuck on a crane who wanted to get down but couldn’t.” It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure and a beautiful commemoration of the silent heroines working to dampen the impact of collective trauma on Iranian society.

There Is No Evil (2020)

Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof 

With the exception of China, no country executed as many people as Iran did last year. In There Is No Evil, Mohammad Rasoulof takes a long, hard look at personal responsibility for capital punishment. A collection of four vignettes from the perspective of an executioner, There Is No Evil challenges the justification that executioners can be absolved because they were just following orders (the title translates more literally to “The Devil Doesn’t Exist”).

Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom: The third vignette is shot against the backdrop of lush countryside complete with some of the most erotic scenes in all of Iranian cinema, which are achieved with nothing more than pomegranate seeds. Although Rasoulof won a Golden Bear at the Berlinale for this film, he paid a heavy price; the director has just been released from prison, but a travel ban prevents him from leaving the country, including to serve as a member of the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard jury last month.

20 Fingers (2004)

Directed by Mania Akbari 

It’s hard to believe 20 Fingers was shot in Iran almost 20 years ago given how frank the discussions of abortion, infidelity, and homosexuality ring to western ears today. The film, which features only two speaking roles, consists of seven conversations between a married couple with each flinch of resentment, lust, and morbid curiosity magnified at close range. It’s not a documentary, though at times it feels like one because of the natural dialogue.

The film was immediately banned in Iran, owing in large part to the first vignette, in which a woman’s fiancé takes an increasingly aggressive line of questioning to establish whether she is in fact a virgin. But it did find success abroad, winning Best Digital Film at the Venice Film Festival.

The Salesman (2016)

Directed by Asghar Farhadi 

After winning Iran’s first Oscar, for A Separation, Farhadi won the second for The Salesman, though he did not receive it in person because he was protesting the Muslim ban that restricted access to U.S. visas for Iranians and citizens of six other Muslim-majority countries. In the tradition common to filmmakers who frequently refer to other artworks in a subtle allusion to the socioeconomic conditions of Iran, The Salesman depicts a married couple and their friend putting on Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.

As opening night approaches, their personal lives are turned upside down, and both the couple’s relationship and their trust in the outside world come under immense pressure. Like other Farhadi films, The Salesman puts masculinity under a microscope, showing how the male protagonists massage their pride to their families’ detriment. But Farhadi’s work, as ever, lingers in the gray as an exercise in empathy for all parties.

About Elly (2009)

Directed by Asghar Farhadi 

Suspense isn’t typically the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Iranian cinema, which tends toward the reflective, but this film is the exception that proves the rule. At first glance, About Elly is a mystery; the initial focus is on what happens to the eponymous character, who goes missing on a seaside trip with her friends. In typical Farhadi fashion, however, the film is more like a laboratory, the narrative a set of conditions under which he places his characters to test their reactions to a breaking point.

What emerges is a study of gender relations among the urban middle class that reveals the tense dynamics between these supposedly liberal sets of couples. It’s one of Farhadi’s earliest films, and you may well recognize the star actors from A Separation or The Salesman in their fresh-faced days as they cut their teeth on the psychological dramas that have come to be associated with Iranian cinema.

Law of Tehran (2019)

Directed by Saeed Roustayi 

If you watch Law of Tehran with the expectation that it’s a thriller, you may be left unconvinced. Watch it as an illustration of the rot at the heart of the Iranian justice system, however, and it will linger with you for months. Law of Tehran depicts an anti-narcotics team’s ruthless pursuit of a mafia kingpin, using a staggering cast of extras recruited from the unhoused population of Tehran’s ghettos, where drugs are rampant. It’s a shocking testament to the addiction crisis in Iran — according to director Saeed Roustayi, 6.5 million Iranians are addicted to drugs today — as well as an indictment of the country’s criminal-justice system, in which the line between police and perpetrator is blurred. You’ll finish the film with substantially higher blood pressure, but it’s worth it if only for one of the most breathtaking scenes in modern Iranian cinema: It comes toward the end of the film when a young boy performs acrobatics for his uncle, clawing back a moment of beauty amid the surrounding depravity.

Iranian (2014)

Directed by Mehran Tamadon 

Director Mehran Tamadon is best known for his social experiments, and Iranian is perhaps the most successful cinematographically — whether it was successful as a political act is debatable. In this documentary, Tamadon invites four mullahs who support the Islamic regime to a weekend away and asks them to conceive of rules for what he describes as “peaceful cohabitation” such that the five of them, despite their differing backgrounds, can respect one another and enjoy their shared space.

There’s no evidence that the mullahs have changed their minds on sensitive issues like women’s rights or the role of religion in society, but Tamadon seems keen throughout to highlight how cinema can build bridges. When they all gather to watch a video he took of his children’s nursery, they may as well be a group of friends catching up after a long absence in a vision of the filmmaker’s utopia, through which film brings about peace. Many viewers will regard Tamadon’s premise with a healthy dose of cynicism, but regardless, Iranian provides an insight into the mullahs’ justifications for the Islamic regime: a rare perspective that makes this film well worth watching.

Falaknaz (2015)

Directed by Sahar Salahshoor 

Over the past few years, the most prominent Iranian films have centered on middle-class Tehranis, but this documentary takes us to a village to stay with Falaknaz, an elderly woman who single-handedly manages a farm, a sheep herd, a shop, and an election campaign for a local fundamentalist candidate. Sahar Salahshoor deftly challenges our perceptions of gender in rural Iran, juxtaposing the sway this elderly woman holds in such a remote community with her conservative political opinions.

All this is done with a light touch. Salahshoor doesn’t pass judgment, but the backdrop of the arid desert offers an explanation: Where running water, electricity, and paved roads are lacking, civil and political rights take a back seat. Falaknaz surfaces an element of the Islamic regime’s relations with its people that doesn’t often get much screen time.

3 Faces (2018)

Directed by Jafar Panahi

Once again using the method he has employed since the Islamic regime banned him from making films, Panahi stars here as himself alongside his friend the actress Behnaz Jafari. An anonymous source had sent the director a video of a young girl’s suicide, which the deceased had blamed on Jafari because the actress didn’t intervene on the girl’s behalf when she reached out for help in convincing her disapproving parents to let her become an actor. With Jafari in tow, Panahi sets out to learn what exactly happened to this girl.

He can’t help but play with his viewers, and much of the suspense comes from the suggestion that the whole premise may be a setup. But at its heart, 3 Faces marks the start of a more meditative series of films in which Panahi returns to his roots among the Azeri of western Iran. Although we may be tempted to see the film as a dialectic between rural and urban life, Panahi resists, and what emerges is a subtle slow burner that presages his loss of faith in the impact of art as it is depicted in his later movies and betrays how out of touch he and his fellow stars have become from the population who spend their evenings watching their films.

Here the Seats Are Vacant (2016)

Directed by Shiva Sanjari 

Watch Here the Seats Are Vacant after 3 Faces for the full experience, as the actress Shahrazad’s house, a place of pilgrimage in 3 Faces, is the stage for this documentary. In Here the Seats Are Vacant, Shiva Sanjari interviews Shahrazad about her career — one that spanned cabaret, film, and poetry — and her status as a sex symbol prior to the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Her story broadly tracks how Iranian women’s bodies have been politicized and controlled by each autocratic regime of the past century, and indeed she identifies herself as both a victim and a pioneer of perceptions of women’s sexual liberation under the Shah. A victim once more — this time of theocracy — she now lives in an extremely modest village home because all of her output has been censored by the Islamic regime. Sanjari’s film is therefore an act of resistance as much as one of testimony, pushing back against the erasure of some of the most prominent prerevolution Iranian women.

Holy Spider (2022)

Directed by Ali Abbasi 

It’s hard to find a film so polarizing that it’s simultaneously lambasted for being “prurient” and praised for its no-holds-barred illustration of the state-imposed misogyny widespread in Iran. Holy Spider is based on the real-life actions of the murderer Saeed Hanaei, who killed 16 sex workers in Mashhad in 2000 and 2001, but this is much more than a serial-killer flick.

Rather, Abbasi uses the story as a pivot to explore the Islamic regime’s obsession with sex and communal purification, the murderous logical conclusion of an ideology that sees women as intrinsically sinful, and the ramifications when the ideology of martyrdom and trauma from the Iran-Iraq war got out of control. If you can stomach it, it’s well worth a watch, not least for Zar Amir Ebrahimi’s Cannes-winning performance as the journalist who uncovers the killer.

Angels of the House of Sun (2009)

Directed by Rakhshan Banietemad 

Unlike her contemporaries who tend to abstraction, Rakhshan Banietemad zooms in with granular detail on the lives of the most vulnerable members of Iranian society, perhaps owing to her ability to enter women-only spaces that would be impossible for her male counterparts to experience. Angels of the House of Sun, in which Banietemad shadows the staff of the women’s shelter House of the Sun, is one such example.

Banietemad doesn’t spare us the pain many of these women have been subjected to — most have survived both addiction and domestic abuse — nor does she shy away from the incongruity of how joy and grief can live side by side. The denouement, with the staff reeling from some bad news about a friend and colleague, is juxtaposed with the sound of music and dancing outside as the women of the shelter grasp at a sense of normalcy. It’s such a poetic end it’s hard to believe anything but reality could be as poignant.

Hit the Road (2021)

Directed by Panah Panahi 

The debut film of Panah Panahi, son of the illustrious director Jafar Panahi, met with critical acclaim, and it’s not hard to see why. Like his father’s later works, Hit the Road eludes simple categorization, but at its core, it’s the story of a family faced with momentous challenges, including the pain of separation, the real-world effects of draconian visa policies toward Iranians, and the precarity in which many middle-class Iranians live. The film offers little back story, and as a result, the focus remains on the family’s emotional turmoil — a shrewd calculation that packs a punch in its final painful scenes.

Taste of Cherry (1997)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami 

The first Iranian film to win a Palme d’Or, Taste of Cherry is a masterpiece of minimalism. The summary sounds more like a riddle than a plot: A man looks for someone kind enough to help him kill himself. But despite the subject matter, what emerges is a life-affirming call from Kiarostami to seize the day. The title comes from a monologue delivered mid-film on what makes life worth living, such as reveling in little things like the taste of cherries, and in the final minutes, the director forces the viewer to do just that before reminding the audience that this is a film and that real life lies off-screen. It’s a sublime ending for a stunning film.

The House Is Black (1963)

Directed by Forough Farrokhzad 

Despite being killed in a car accident at the age of 32, Forough Farrokhzad is regarded as Iran’s most prodigious female poet. The House Is Black, her only film, attests to Farrokhzad’s cinematic potential. Documenting life at a leper colony, it begins with the arresting idea that “the world would have more ugliness if man closed his eyes to it.”

Although the film was commissioned by the National Society for Leprosy, the director’s perspective is wider than the disease itself, and she uses the colony as a parable of life under the autocracy of the Shah who governed Iran from 1953 until the Islamic revolution. It’s a testament to Farrokhzad’s cinematic mastery that at the premiere of The House Is Black, the Shah himself allegedly shed a tear.

The Cow (1969)

Directed by Dariush Mehrjui 

 An oldie but a goodie, The Cow is widely credited with establishing the New Wave movement in Iranian cinema. While the Shah was trying to project the opulence and splendor of the Iranian monarchy — the 1971 celebration of 2,500 years of monarchy in Persepolis used 37 kilometers of silk, commissioned world-famous restaurant Maxim’s for two weeks, and flew in 50,000 songbirds from Europe — The Cow burst onto the scene as an indictment of the rural poverty in which millions of Iranians lived.

The film tells the story of a rural man tipped into insanity after the death of his cow, his only asset. It was immediately banned, though scholars have argued that because of its international acclaim (it won the critics’ prize at Venice), The Cow opened up space for Iranian film under both the Shah and the later Islamic regime owing to the prestige it brought to the country.

No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009)

Directed by Bahman Ghobadi 

Tracing the nascent underground “rap-e Farsi” and indie-rock scenes in Iran, Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats follows a band as it jumps through hoops trying to get a permit to perform in Tehran and a visa to tour in London — as well as a place to practice without a neighbor reporting them to the religious police. There are some truly hilarious moments, including some bewildered cows looking on as a heavy-metal band practices in their barn, along with heartwarming scenes, such as a musician teaching music to a class of Afghan children through the art of air guitar.

But the film has a serious message: Women singing in public or anyone playing in a westernized band is committing a crime under the Islamic regime, and the protagonists were forced to flee the country on the last day of filming. Sadly, the movie remains as relevant today as it was 14 years ago. As reports emerge that dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi is at risk of execution, No One Knows About Persian Cats gives insight into the extreme pressure Iranian musicians live under and, most important, how they persist.

Formerly Youth Square (2019)

Directed by Mina Akbari 

Formerly Youth Square takes as its starting point the erasure of a generation of journalists in Iran. Filmmaker Mina Akbari herself left journalism and after a long hiatus turned to directing to reconnect with her graduating class and preserve the testimony of journalists whose work has been expunged from the official state narrative. Much to her chagrin, she finds that of her 71 classmates and mentors, only six are still journalists.

Their experiences depict their work as a kind of psychological torture, such that the self-censorship they employ for fear of falling afoul of the authorities or of expending their energy on stories that will never be printed became a kind of prison of the mind. It’s a melancholic but important film that may remind viewers of the heyday of the reformist movement of the early aughts and the golden age of the printing press in postrevolutionary Iran, a time when there was hope for change without revolution.

Be Like Others (2008)

Directed by Tanaz Eshaghian 

Homosexuality is a capital offense under the Islamic regime, which hasn’t shied away from executing gay-rights activists or civilians accused of “homosexual activity.” As a solution, the regime encourages “sex-reassignment surgery” to, in its own words, “rescue” gay youths so they can transition to a gender identity through which their desires may be exercised in a “lawful” heterosexual relationship. You can’t say the Iranian regime is pro-trans — this isn’t an endorsement of trans rights as much as a way of painting gay youths as “sinful” — but its approach is so different from discussions of trans issues in the U.S. that this documentary is well worth watching.

In the film, Tanaz Eshaghian follows a surgeon who performs sex-reassignment surgery, a 26-year-old trans woman who encourages gay youth to transition to address their “sinful” desires, and the Islamic regime’s “lead cleric on transsexuality.” Eshaghian doesn’t overedit, instead letting the young people’s testimony serve as an indictment of the regime’s persecution of gay Iranians and its co-option of trans identity to fulfill its rigidly homophobic perception of sexuality.

No Bears (2022)

Directed by Jafar Panahi 

Panahi’s most recent release, No Bears, is worlds away from his first petulant responses to the regime’s ban on his filmmaking. It continues where 3 Faces leaves off, with the director returning to western Iran, where he grew up. He stations himself there to direct a hybrid fictionalized documentary about a couple fleeing Iran.

But his stay in the village puts him in conflict with his neighbors, and, more so than in any other film of his, Panahi seems at war with himself. It’s a melancholic reflection on the role of art, and it came out just as Panahi was imprisoned during last year’s protests. But despite Panahi’s apparent concerns about the moral bankruptcy of his art form and his career, No Bears was met with critical acclaim, winning the Special Jury Prize at Venice.

Children of Heaven (1997)

Directed by Majid Majidi 

Children of Heaven, the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Oscar, is representative of the naïve, childlike Iranian cinema of the turn of the century. Although critics have read the film as a political critique — casting children is a common method for Iranian filmmakers to avoid raising the suspicion of the censors — Children of Heaven is at the end of the day a coming-of-age fable about a boy who lets his sister down and moves heaven and earth to make amends. It’s so beautifully filmed that it deserves your attention even with no children around, not least as an antidote to the gore and melancholy that have become much more common in contemporary Iranian cinema as filmmakers represent the hellscape of the Islamic regime.

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