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May 5, 2006
By Aaron Hillis
The curtain call is nigh, so my final review roundup will probably do the most service as a "critic's choice," just three great tastes that taste random together… Based on an idea by Iran's preeminent filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, writer-director Mani Haghighi's Men at Work (Kargaran mashghool-e karand) is a wonderfully offbeat comic allegory that maintains the sharpness of Kiarostami's humanist observations. Suitably shot in DV and transferred to film so that it looks like a home movie, four middle-aged Iranian men in an SUV drive through the snowy mountains on a ski trip. After pulling over for a pit stop, they discover an abnormal, phallic-looking rock extending up from the cliff, which their testosterone-juiced instincts demand they push over. Like a Sisyphean story by Beckett, the stone doesn't seem meant to budge, which further motivates the group to obsess over this futile task. Before long, others have come to prove their own prideful diligence, sign posts and trees are eyed for uprooting in case they might make good levers, and an old man relents to selling his donkey (the most humiliated beast since Au Hasard Balthazar). The fest guide synopsis suggests that the symbolism is political, though I concur with a certain feminist critic of prominence who suggested to me that it's far simpler than that. At face value, the film reads just as persuasively as a satire of masculine idiocy.
--Aaron Hillis/ Premiere Magazine - Review
February 5, 2006
By Deborah Young
Most films exploring the male-female divide in Iranian society have concentrated on women's problems, but in "Men At Work," which won Mani Haghighi the screenplay prize in the international section of the Fajr fest, the writer-director looks at the psychological damage done to the other side. Winking at the audience, this comedy of the absurd revolves around the mysterious obsession four buddies returning from a ski trip develop toward a phallic-looking rock sticking out of the roadside. Sophisticated auds will enjoy this thoroughly modern spoof on masculine fixations, played out in frank, realistic dialogue. Speciality distribs should take a look.
Clean and simple compared with the parallel stories that fought each other in Haghighi's debut film "Abadan," current title is admittedly something of a one-joke tale. But the director gets surprisingly good mileage out of the elementary idea, which is credited to Abbas Kiarostami.
Driving their SUV back to Tehran, a quartet of fiftysomething ski buddies discover the weather-beaten rock standing proud and tall on the edge of a dizzying precipice. In typical male fashion, they decide they have to topple it. After pushing proves useless, they try tying ropes to the back of an old man's donkey. When the fellow objects that, if successful, the weight of the rock will pull the donkey over the cliff, one of the men (Ahmad Hamed) furiously whips out his wallet and buys the animal.
Thankfully for animal lovers, the rock doesn't budge, but this new defeat only increases the men's determination to conquer it. Meanwhile two women acquaintances drive by. While the ballsy, outspoken Mina (Fatemeh Motamed Arya) eggs them on, Sahar (Mahnaz Afshar) quietly settles a fight with her husband Mohsen (Mahmoud Kalari), depicted as the most sensible of the quartet and not by chance the least hostile to women. As the story wears on -- and at 75 minutes it is stretched to the breaking point -- more cars pull up, shovels and chain saws are procured, and madness takes over. Ending is neat and unexpected.
Like all good symbols, Haghighi's rock is not simple to interpret, though one working hypothesis might be that it represents the patriarchy, which is seemingly impossible to dislodge. Luckily, symbolism takes a back seat to the story, which is firmly grounded in concrete dialogue and believable human interaction.
The largely non-pro cast, including acclaimed cinematographer Kalari (father of film's D.P. Koohyar Kalari) and other film professionals, are totally convincing as Iran's modern urban middle class, and their difficulties relating to the opposite sex will strike a chord with Western viewers.
The crisp mountain setting that shouts of untouched nature is well-captured on DV and cleanly transferred to 35mm. Music is used sparingly and strikes just the right subtle note, like a snatch of "Calfornia Dreaming."
--Deborah Young/ Variety - Review
October 6, 2006
`Men at Work' travels beyond the Iran of recent headlines
By Michael Wilmington
"Men at Work" is another fine Iranian film that, happily enough, ignores or sabotages the usual stereotypes. Directed and written by Mani Haghighi, and a prize-winner at several film festivals, this movie is a naturalistic comedy-drama based on a story by Iran's most acclaimed and brilliant filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami ("A Taste of Cherry").
In form, it's another of Kiarostami's "driving" tales, this time about four male 50ish friends on their way back from a ski trip in their SUV, who get sidetracked when one of them, Mammad (Ahmad Hamed), becomes obsessed with a large rock jutting up from a cliff edge.
Absurdly, Mammad and the others become determined to send the rock toppling over the edge and down the mountainside. The whole thing starts as a kind of joke, but the rock resists all their efforts--as it's pushed, dug under, hauled by a donkey, pried with a makeshift lever or even rammed with the SUV. When two women in the group join them, they take a more humorous approach, but their efforts are futile as well.
The rock, it seems, stands for something seemingly immovable. Iranian culture? The state? The forces of nature? A stubborn phallic symbol? It could be any or all of them. But, essentially, it's a rock that just won't budge--and that drives some of these men crazy.
"Men at Work," in the end, is a somewhat slight film but an enjoyable and sympathetic one. Watching it, we get the pleasure of recognizing some of our own problems in a supposedly distant, foreign culture. Kiarostami may have supplied the story, but Haghighi has a more naturalistic touch with performances than his mentor. All the characters here are warm, human and convincing, and the film glides easily from the initial tone of light humor to the increasingly painful drama.
By the end, especially in these politically tense times, it becomes reassuring to see one more realistic Iranian film that portrays the country's people as ordinary and human--and preoccupied more with sports and their romantic and family lives than world tensions or nuclear ambitions.
--Michael Wilmington/ Chicago Tribune - Review
October 6, 2006
By Hank Sartin
The plot of this terrific Iranian film sounds like a shaggy-dog story: Four men stop for a piss break on a mountain road. One notices a tall rock perched on the edge of a cliff and becomes obsessed with pushing it off. That rock is surely a metaphor for something, but the real pleasure here is watching the interactions of four good friends. Like any shaggy-dog story, it's the details that matter.
--Hank Sartin/ Time Out Chicago - Review