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Women's stories converge at `Cafe'

February 16, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Saman Moghadam's "Cafe Setareh" paints a compassionate triple portrait of three women living in an ancient, shabby but picturesque pocket of Tehran. Moghadam's pacing leisurely suggests that this neighborhood exists in a time warp, even though it is endangered by urban development and most of its people are struggling to survive.

A filmmaker of considerable subtlety who presents the same events from the differing perspectives and stories of his three main characters, Moghadam celebrates the strong sense of community in this tiny neighborhood, views its inhabitants' naivete with affectionate humor and laments their hardships -- especially those of the women, with their second-class status.

Moghadam is not a dynamic stylist or fiery protester, and "Cafe Setareh" therefore is not strong in obvious crossover appeal. Even so, it's safe to suggest that Iranian American audiences and those interested in Iranian movies for all their diversity are likely to connect with it.

The film takes its title from a local hangout run by the hard-pressed Fariba (Afsaneh Baygan), a strong, resilient woman of about 40 who is burdened with a no-good husband, Fereidoon (Shahkroh Foroutanian), a drug-taking ex-con who abuses his wife and saps her modest income.

The youthful, beautiful Saloomeh (Haniyeh Tavasoli) and her fiance, Ebi (Pejman Bazeghi), who frequent the cafe, long to marry. But Ebi, an auto mechanic, faces losing his job as the garage where he works is slated to be bulldozed.

Meanwhile, the regal-looking but lonely, middle-aged Moluk (Roya Teimourian) dreams of snagging Fariba's much younger brother Khosro (Hamed Behdad), who is striving to immigrate illegally to Turkey.

Essentially, "Cafe Setareh" is a classic women's picture but has a depth of perception not always associated with the genre. There's no lack of tear-jerking and melodramatic developments, but they are sustained by Moghadam's steadfast belief in the mutually supportive value of community life, so endangered in rapidly changing, increasingly impersonal cities everywhere in the world.

Moghadam shows a gift for directing actors. In a fine ensemble cast, the commanding Teimourian is a standout, amusing yet poignant as a kind, generous person so desperate for love that she feels compelled to assume the demure, girlishly flirtatious manner of a woman young enough to be her daughter.

"Cafe Setareh." MPAA rating: Unrated. Some violence, but suitable for most audiences. In Farsi with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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