Reviewed by Deborah Klugman

3 Faces, the latest film by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, begins on a disturbing note, with a lengthy closeup, shot with a cell phone, of a distraught teenage girl Mariziyeh (Marizyeh Rezaei) pleading for help and accusing whomever she’s addressing of ignoring her plea. The sequence ends cryptically, with the girl slipping a noose around her neck, and then -?

Cut to the interior of a beat-up old vehicle traveling through the rural backwaters of eastern Turkey. Seated inside are the filmmaker Panahi and an Iranian movie star, Behnaz Jafari. The red-headed Jafari is in an angry mood. It turns out she is the person Mariziyeh was trying to reach. Now, feeling resentful yet responsible, she is traveling to the girl’s small village to ascertain whether she is alive or dead. “If she is alive, I will kill her,” she tells the more sanguine Panahi, who is navigating them through the rocky mountainous terrain, negotiating their passage by communicating with Turkish-speaking villagers, a language Jafari does not speak.

Eventually, Panahi and Jafari do find Mariziyeh, alive. And while the girl isn’t facing torture or an official death sentence on imprisonment behind bars (the extremity of her pleas at the beginning of the film suggest it might be life or death), she is confronted with another kind of death sentence. It turns out that Mariziyeh wants to study theater and be an actress; she’s even been accepted at a competitive drama academy. But her aspirations are considered dishonorable by her family and the neighboring villagers, and have made her an outcast, with her volatile brother threatening violence unless she agrees to an arranged marriage and a horizon-less future in their primitive village. Although in some ways her trials and tribulations resemble those of a teenager in our own culture, for this young woman, short of her life, there is everything to lose.

Like the leisurely, stop-and-start rhythm of their journey, 3 Faces moves at an unhurried pace. But the rewards for sticking with it are multiple, beginning with the trip through the Turkish hinterlands, with its depiction of a tribal culture and a way of life unchanged for centuries. Against this backdrop are the performances by Panahi and Jafari playing themselves in a fictional story but in a non-fictional setting; they are our intimate guides into this foreign world. And most compelling of all is the spine of the story, that of a non-conformist young woman and the severe price she must pay for her dissent. The stakes here are chilling from the standpoint of any feminist, and the race to save her makes a harrowing suspenseful tale.

Master Filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s Cannes award-winning drama (2018 best screenplay) opens in Los Angeles on Friday, March 29 @ Laemmle Royal, Town Center 5 & Glendale locations.

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