Monday, April 26, 2010

Beauty in the Face of Ugliness

Film: Khaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black)
Format: Internet video on desktop PC.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating for a short documentary film like Khaneh Siah Ast—I knew going into this that some of the movies I would watch would challenge me greatly. Such a film is this one, coming in at a mere 20 minutes and change. Certainly not the ordeal that Salo proved to be nor the endless slog of Jeanne Dielman, Khaneh Siah Ast is nonetheless one of the more challenging cinematic offerings I have witnessed this year.

This film shows life in a leper colony in Iran in the early 1960s. It starts with a black screen, saying that what will come are images of extreme ugliness, and it does not lie. We are given a long, unbroken look into the face of a terribly disfigured woman. We then see life progress in the colony. Faces shattered by the disease, horrible disfigurements, limbs shattered by leprosy, club-like hands and feet. The people go about their day, eating, praying, and carrying on the basic functions of life, all of them suffering in one stage or another from the disease.

For much of the film, we are given a matter-of-fact voice over from a male voice that tells us about leprosy and what the disease is and can do. This is joined by a female voice offering what are essentially prayers for the stricken people, both crying out in the anguish of their fate and praising God for, despite the terrible wasting disease, the essential beauty of life.

Stirring stuff, and not necessarily for the weak of stomach. It’s worth noting that I’m a fan of a good horror movie and I don’t generally shy away from the gory bits. One reason I like the gory bits, though, is that I’m fully aware of said bits being stage makeup, special effects, and other such mummery. Not so here, and there were several places where I wanted to cover up the screen with a hand (and I’ll even confess that once or twice, I was compelled to do exactly that to avoid potentially seeing dinner come back from whence it came). Why? Because in this case, this is not makeup, nor is it staged. These are real people sorely afflicted and mutilated by a disease that is, essentially, curable.

And yet, while what is on screen is terrible and as ugly as the opening suggests, there is also a beauty and nobility here. That people so afflicted can maintain their faith, even to the point of praising their creator for the beauty in the world while their own physical form undergoes slow and inevitable decay is moving in the extreme. The prayers offered are heartwrenching simply because of this juxtaposition of the reaching for the divine and the extreme physical corruption.

With its running time of about 20 minutes 30 seconds or so, this film feels much longer than it truly is, and the images set forth here will not go gently into that good night in the mind. However disturbing, though, I feel genuinely fortunate for having seen the film because of its undeniable power.

If I could wish for anything, it would be improved subtitles. It’s not so much that the translation is bad or doesn’t make sense, it’s that the white text is sometimes extremely difficult if not impossible to read. I found the poetry of the prayers particularly moving, and would have loved to have been able to read all of it. Missing out on even a few lines seems like a disservice to these people who have suffered so terribly, and yet still maintained their essential humanity and dignity.

Why to watch Khaneh Siah Ast: As moving a portrait of both suffering and religion as has been created.
Why not to watch: Challenging in the extreme.


  1. I saw The House Is Black some time ago, months? Maybe as much as a year ago? and I must have forgotten to leave a comment.

    And as I feel bad for movies that have no comments - poor lonely little movie posts that have no comments - I feel obliged to say something. It helps that I remember this very well.

    I liked it a lot. And it's by far the oldest Iranian film I've ever seen. (I think I'm almost up to ten Iranian movies!)

    The reasons to see it are 1) it's only twenty minutes; 2) it's a documentary about leprosy!

    I didn't have any trouble sitting through it, and I found it entertaining and informative.

    I guess it's the ten-year-old boy within that's still fascinated by leprosy.

    1. I had trouble watching it. It's not one I want to watch again, but I am happy I saw it.