A family car journey isn’t always an enticing premise – either for a film or in real life. But in Panah Panahi’s feature debut Hit the Road, the ride is one that both the audience and the family featured probably wish would last forever. It’s an intimate, frequently funny, poignant and deeply moving piece of work.
We begin by the side of a dusty road in the Iranian countryside. A Schubert piano sonata plays in the background and a six-year-old boy (Rayan Sarlak) plays along on a keyboard drawn on the cast of his father’s (Hassan Madjooni) leg. It’s a perfect introduction to the tone of the film as the sad beauty of the music mixes with the adept playfulness of the child. Sarlak is astonishing, a bundle of irrepressible comedy, activity and energy, which his parents respond to with a mix of irritation and good humour.
The boy is variously the little fart, the little monkey, a pest. When he gets out of the car he kisses the ground to his father’s exasperation. When he leaps onboard a bus that they are following later in the journey his father shouts at him (“Warn the people, he’s an idiot!”) and his mother (Pantea Panahiha) wonders pityingly at “those poor people” now stuck with him. And yet he is also a huge source of joy and they marvel at his endless repertoire of jokes and games.
His elder brother, “monkey number one” (Amin Simiar) is by contrast a sullen, largely silent presence (for valid reasons, as we will later learn). There is a lingering sense of danger as the journey continues. Not everyone in the car knows where they are going and, as often happens under sad family circumstances, appearances must be kept up for the sake of the youngest. The family jokes, the intimacy and the bickering is so precisely and realistically drawn that the increasing feeling that all this is under threat is genuinely chilling.
Panahi is the son of Jafar Panahi, the great director of Taxi Tehran and This Is Not a Film, who was imprisoned by the Iranian regime for six years and has been banned from filmmaking for 20 years. In this sense, the absolute confidence and sureness of touch is perhaps understandable, having worked with his father for many years. But Hit the Road is damned near to being a masterpiece – if it isn’t simply one already. There are scenes of broad comedy, musical sequences and a wholly tragic episode that plays out in a long wide-shot. The wonderful cast inhabit their roles so fully it’s hard to believe this is not a bona fide family. Iran is a country that has created – despite atrocious conditions – many wonderful filmmakers. Panah Panahi has earned his right to be counted among them.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty