It probably takes an intimate knowledge of Iranian social history to understand everything going on in Mohammad Rasoulof's boldly allusive fantasia Iron Island. Almost all the action takes place on an oil tanker, and as anyone who read Moby Dick in high school knows, boats are never just boats. Iron Island's floating allegory is adrift in the Persian Gulf, populated by Middle Easterners who couldn't make it on the mainland for one reason or another. The captain, played by Ali Nassirian, governs the ship benevolently, making sure that children get an education and everyone has enough food and a little luxury. But to keep his little world intact, he brokers deals that aren't always on the up-and-up, and he metes out cruel justice to citizens who don't fall in line. Oh, and his ship? It's slowly sinking.

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It's easy to get distracted by who Iron Island's characters are meant to represent, and Rasoulof seems to get a little distracted himself, as he makes a belated stab at inserting a plot into the movie to give his message some shape. While the unexpected narrative drives Iron Island to a haunting finale which examines the true meaning of "sellout," while simultaneously restoring the desert to its rightful place as the nomads' spiritual home, the particulars of what happens to Nassirian and his charges feels too forced. And while Rasoulof's elliptical style gives the film a dry comic tone, it also sucks out a lot of the urgency.

Iron Island is at its most compelling early, as Rasoulof explores his human-scaled ant farm, detailing how people make lives for themselves in cramped quarters, using cardboard partitions and jerry-rigged appliances. Everyone pitches in to keep the ship running and to earn room and board, while Nassirian maintains a big ledger to record who owes what to whom. Far from utopian, Iron Island's makeshift community is rife with cracks and conflict, since nearly every one of its citizens is torn between gratitude to Nassirian and indignation about their rights as paying customers. A more knowledgeable person could explain how Rasoulof's vision of Arabia in miniature reflects the personality of chronically divided people, but Iron Island should also ring true to anyone who's ever attended a committee meeting.