Iranian Woody Allen Can't Even Keep His Burial Plot - "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine" Review
By Elvis Mitchell The New York Times
Bahman Farmanara's "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine" has a pixilated charm and, under the surface, a current of despair. Mr. Farmanara's sense of humor flows into this three-part story about Bahman, a filmmaker coming to terms with his own mortality; he could be an Iranian Woody Allen using his own life for scoring laughs off himself.
''Your call is a good thing for a bad day,'' the depressed Bahman says to his son, who has called him in the section of the film called ''A Bad Day.'' This melancholy lump of a man clutches his left arm in pain, often as he's reaching for a cigarette. His current job isn't generating many thrills for him either; he's making a documentary on Iranian burial rituals for Japanese television. ''They pay well,'' he says to his son. He understands that he has to keep working, though. ''When a filmmaker doesn't make films, it's like death,'' he observes, his blue eyes rimmed with sadness.
The film piles up the incidents and portents. When Bahman checks in on his late wife's burial plot, he's caught in a bureaucratic downward spiral. He bought a plot next to his wife's -- ''May you live 120 years, but what a good idea,'' he's told by the cemetery attendant -- but his plot has been sold out from beneath or above him, as the case may be. His family causes him just as much suffering. His harridan of a sister shows up and harangues him for his bad habits, which is enough to make him increase his tobacco consumption. ''Survived another storm, sir,'' his servant, Abdollah, sighs after the sister sweeps out of the house.
And there's the camphor he can't get out of his mind. The night before his wife died, he told her that their bed smelled of death and he associated it with the camphor in her new night cream. It is later revealed that corpses are bathed in water with camphor. Mr. Farmanara uses a rough-hewn shooting style, mixing in a bit of eye candy in the form of passing sunrises and sunsets, to give the film a footing in reality.
There's a touching complication about the jasmine in the title that is revealed when he visits his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. (It also comes up with the impending birth of his grandchild, part of his past and his future.) He calls his mother's condition a death before dying, and all this obsession -- which also brings to mind Mr. Allen's dolorous ruminations -- seems to prefigure an obvious denouement. His film does not take that easy plot turn, and instead moves into a gently and slightly agonizing recognition of what Bahman's life is about.
Perhaps it's the difference in culture, but the thoughtfulness in "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine" shows that its creator isn't letting himself or his audience off the hook.
Originally Published September 30, 2000
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