Only countries under duress turn out motion pictures quite like the new Iranian film "Iron Island."
The second feature by young writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof, "Iron Island" has made the Cannes-Toronto-Telluride festival circuit that's become second nature to films from that country. But this is not a typical Iranian production. Simultaneously deeply allegorical and concretely physical, this striking film is not a typical production, period.
Almost all of "Iron Island" takes place on a huge oil tanker abandoned not far from the shore of the Persian Gulf. "There it stands, like a rock," says the admiring Capt. Nemat (the veteran Ali Nasirian) as he ferries new residents out to the vessel.
That's right, several hundred men, women and children live on the tanker in a microcosm of society, from schools to work environments, all overseen by the captain, who accepts no rent but keeps track of expenses in a thick book and deducts them from everyone's wages.
Very much "Iron Island's" central character, the captain (whose name resembles that of the legendary Captain Nemo) is without question the law west of Dodge, so to speak. He is a stern, paternalistic taskmaster with life-and-death authority over everyone on the ship, but he does seem to care about the well being of his charges.
Among the people on board are a schoolteacher who keeps insisting the ship is sinking, a young boy who frees small trapped fish and an old man who does nothing but stare directly into the sun. "The Poseidon Adventure" this is not.
Though there is a subplot about the captain's young protege falling in love with a girl promised to someone else, the emotional component of "Iron Island" is not exceptional.
Rather, it is the attention "Iron Island" has paid to the details of its physical setting that piques our interest. There is a whole teeming city on this derelict boat, and watching everyone doing their jobs (many of which involve taking the ship apart and selling the pieces as scrap metal) is quite involving.
"Iron Island's" visual centerpiece is the captain's scheme to extract and sell the oil that remains in the tanker. As shot by cinematographer Reza Jalali, the sequence of bright yellow drums being pushed overboard and joined by young men who will push them to shore is haunting, exhilarating and quietly disturbing.
The notion couldn't be clearer that this derelict tanker, a place where, in the filmmaker's words, "life goes on despite the problems," represents Iran, but beyond that it is difficult for non-Iranians to go. Unlikely as it sounds, however, "Iron Island" does give us a sense of what living in a country like that might be like. We may not understand everything, but we understand enough.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Kino International release. Director Mohammad Rasoulof. Producers Mohammad Rasoulof, Abolhassan Davoodi. Screenplay Mohammad Rasoulof. Director of photography Reza Jalali. Editor Bahram Dehghan. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In limited release.