Thursday, January 19, 2017

Party in Hell (Iran, 1956)

While popular with Iranian audiences, Party in Hell was controversial in its day—perhaps for its combination of traditional religious imagery and broad slapstick comedy. The religious imagery I’m talking about is, of course, its depiction of hell and purgatory. But from which tradition that imagery is derived is open to question. There are indeed many similarities between the Muslim and Christian conceptions of Hell, but when Party in Hell introduces Biblical figures like Adam and Eve into its narrative, it seems to indicate the latter as its primary source. Of course, this question could be easily set to rest if I’d had access to a translated version of Party in Hell, which is why you don’t pay money to read this blog.

It seems that the makers of Party in Hell were as or more familiar with the story of Scrooge as that of the Bible, as that is the story that is here being warmed over for our delectation. Popular stage comedian Reeza Arham Sadr plays Haji Jabbar, a wealthy merchant who is as tyrannical as he is stingy and grasping. In fact, the film does such a good job of establishing Haji as a complete bastard that it is difficult to swallow the comic antics his character falls back upon during its phantasmagorical second half. Haji is shown gleefully evicting a destitute mother and her starving children and then brutally manhandling his daughter Parvin (Roufia) in a rage over her wanting to marry her penniless lover. Parvin then sings a sad song to a caged bird, because, as with so many national cinemas, music was a key part of Iranian popular cinema—or, more accurately, Film Farsi—at the time. Seemingly, it’s only in America that making a lightweight musical romance with major studio backing is seen as taking some kind of tremendous artistic risk (yes, La La Land, feel the stink eye.)

Eventually, Haji becomes gravely ill and takes to his bed, whereupon he is visited by the angel Azrael, who ignores his pleas and whisks him off to purgatory. Party in Hell was considered quite technically advanced in its day, and it’s true that no small amount of modestly budgeted movie magic was expended in realizing its comically surrealistic vision of the underworld. Haji and his conscientious assistant Ahmad (Ezzatollah Vosough), who is also there for some reason, take in the sights as Haji ceaselessly wails and moans pathetically. What they see are monstrous, fog enshrouded idols, dark winged angels, craggy, desolate landscapes, hideous sleeping monsters, and horned demon sentries. Occasionally they will catch a glimpse of hell itself, seeing tormented souls hung by their heels and toiling at a giant stone wheel while pits of white hot lava roil angrily nearby. They even see Hitler, Genghis Khan and Napoleon greedily pawing at a globe that they have been circling predatorily for, one assumes, eternity. Then someone will stumble or hit their head and there will be a slide whistle or “boing-g-g” sound to accompany it, because this is a comedy.

Much of Haji and Ahmad’s tour through limbo has the feel of a twisted travelogue, like a God-fearing, Middle Eastern take on a Mondo movie. At one point, the pair comes upon a group of grass-skirt wearing movie savages, who entertain them with their native dances. At another, they stumble upon a sort of sock hop of the damned, populated by clean cut rock and rollers who shake and shimmy to an American rockabilly record. Haji has, by this point, stopped his obnoxious caterwauling, to the point that he happily participates in the dancing, though at another point he and Ahmad are happy to sit back and ogle the many scantily clad women on hand. You get the message that purgatory is actually pretty fun, until the two of them are presented to a white bearded figure who gives them a few more buzz-killing peeks at hell and its torments before setting them free.

I think that comparing Party in Hell to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol should count as a spoiler alert, so if you are shocked to learn that, upon waking from his dream, Haji is the picture of magnanimity, approving his daughter’s marriage and gifting his fortune to charity, you should probably clean your glasses and start this review over. Of course, Haji then dies, after which he is shown being transported to heaven in an ornate flying palanquin which is born on the shoulders of angels. Given what a shit Haji has been shown to be previously, this seems like a disproportionate reward, to say the least--but by this point it seems that Party in Hell has less interest in harsh moralizing than in just being entertaining. It’s difficult to imagine a film like it being made in the religiously conservative atmosphere of the post revolution years, just as it is to imagine the festival darling that Iranian cinema would become based on this movie’s comparative frivolity. Seemingly, that cinema had to go through a purgatory of its own before it could reach maturity.

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