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Since it was popularized by the Abbas Kiarostami film Where Is My Friend's House?, the kid-on-a-quest movie has been one of the most visible genres in Iranian cinema. Following Kiarostami's example, the typical Iranian kid-on-a-quest film tends to be shot in a style reminiscent of Italian neo-realism and confined to a short space of time, following one or more children traversing the adult world and encountering a variety of characters as they attempt to realize their goal. Working from a Kiarostami script, Jafar Panahi made one of the definitive kid-quest films, 1995's The White Balloon, in which a brother and sister encounter unexpected difficulties in attempting to purchase a goldfish on New Year's Day. With the ingenious 1997 film The Mirror, Panahi took the genre in unexpected directions. Wearing an arm cast and a slightly annoyed expression and left to fend for herself when her mother fails to pick her up from school, star Mina Mohammad Khani at first seems to inhabit a typical, albeit strong, kid-quest movie. Attempting to find her way home, Khani bumps against several sorts of characters, paying particular attention to the behavior of women during a long bus ride that allows her to observe a young couple's loving glances, a fortune teller advising a wife about her cheating husband, and an aged mother complaining about her neglectful children. When the bus ride nears its end, about halfway through the movie, Panahi offers a twist. (It's impossible to discuss the film without the twist, so readers who want no surprises spoiled should skip to the next review.) Removing her cast and declaring, "I'm not acting anymore," Khani storms away from the cameras. Undaunted, the director decides to follow his star at a distance, observing as she, like her character, grows disoriented and is forced to rely on the kindness of others to find her way home. Peeling away the layers of artifice, Panahi trades in neo-realism for cinéma vérité and, finally, a playful, unaffected post-modernism. Commenting on Iranian cinema's tendency to use non-professional actors, the film captures Khani as she re-encounters the grousing old woman, only to discover that her story of neglect, at the director's request, came from real life. Later, the cameras lose sight of Khani, but her adventures, including an encounter with the actor who used to dub John Wayne's voice, can be heard through her still-active microphone. As daring a technical exercise in its own way as Memento, The Mirror similarly transcends gimmickry. Khani makes for an entertainingly petulant heroine, as well as an ideal, if unlikely, guide through Panahi's daring and funny examination of filmmaking's semi-permeable looking glass.


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