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MOVIE REVIEW : Busload of Iranians Stuck in 'Checkpoint'

November 20, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

In April, 1980, a group of Iranian students from Detroit's Wayne State University returning from an outing to nearby Windsor, Ontario, found themselves detained at the U.S.-Canadian border. They had not yet heard of the presidential order suspending visas in response to the ongoing hostage crisis.

In their real predicament, with its ironic parallels to the Americans being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iranian emigre writer-director Parviz Sayyad perceived a fictional microcosm in which to dramatize the tragic plight of his country in all its deep-rooted and impassioned complexity. Promising as this sounds, Sayyad, the gifted maker of "Dead End" and "The Mission," has been unable to prevent his film "Checkpoint" from lapsing into repetitive ideological debate. He has been further hampered by a large cast whose abilities range from the impressive to the embarrassingly amateurish. Although his film (at the Monica 4-Plex) is challenging, courageous and enlightening, it comes alive only fitfully and leaves us with the impression that it would work much better on stage.

Even before the students are stopped at the border, there is considerable tension aboard their chartered bus, which also contains a number of their American classmates. Once they learn that they are trapped in a no-man's-land between two countries, the Iranians quickly divide into bitter, vociferous pro- and anti-Khomeini factions. Although Sayyad holds no brief for the Shah and his regime, he is also strongly anti-Khomeini. He can respect the revolutionary impulse; however, he regards it as having been cruelly exploited by the ayatollah and his harsh regime. Ultimately, Sayyad's perspective is profoundly tragic and deeply illuminating, which makes it all the sadder that his film is so uneven.

When all hope for a quick resolution has been thoroughly dashed by anti-American activities from three of the Iranians, a war of words begins in earnest. Leading the opposition to the Islamic radicals is the fiery Firouzeh (Mary Apick, a star of "Dead End" and "The Mission"), who is as deeply ashamed of them as she is of the taking of the American hostages. Sayyad enters the fray directly, casting himself as a successful, self-made Detroit-based electronics engineer whose attempts to help his countrymen are rebuffed by the radicals. Much that is pertinent emerges in the clashes--e.g., the male chauvinism of the Islamics, the ancient sources of Iran's travail, the declaration that never has a country auctioned itself off as cheaply as Iran--but oh, how protracted is the wrangling!

Not surprisingly, "Checkpoint" is more effective in its occasional pauses, as in its key image of isolation: the bus standing alone in the snow, a great bridge looming overhead. By and large the acting honors go to the Iranians, led by Apick, the film's executive producer. Veteran actor Buck Kartalian has an important role as the bus driver, an Italian immigrant and proud American citizen horrified by the radicals; Kartalian can be wonderful but here his performance is overly theatrical. "Checkpoint" (Times-rated Mature for complex themes and strong language) ends as a plea for sanity, mutual respect and reconciliation, leaving one wishing such noble sentiments had been less tediously expressed.

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