There’s something freeing about seeing a truly scandalous film. Unless your background is of the Iranian diaspora, you may never have even heard of Chess of the Wind, a work whose reputation rested on censored VHS tapes and hushed whispers for decades before happenstance found a complete copy of the film in a Tehran antique shop.
You’ve certainly never seen anything exactly like this 1976 Iranian film, currently making its way around the world after being banned in Iran before the Islamic Revolution had even happened, smuggled out of the country nearly 45 years after its creation. But among the many notable things about the film (and there are many) is the fact that it is more accessible to Western audiences than one might initially think. The forms and archetypes of the gothic narrative reveal themselves, clad in shadow and hushed secrets, just as shockingly in Farsi as in the English of Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor. Specificities vary, details broaden the reach of the net, but at the heart of this film is the kind of story that Euripides and Edogawa Rampo both laid out, that found flower equally in the writings of Shirley Jackson and Barbara Cartland, or the films of Luchino Visconti and Mickey Reece.
Lady Aghdas (Fakhri Khorvash), paraplegic and mostly confined to a wicker-backed wheelchair, is the heir to a small family fortune. Lurking around every corner are inventive hordes of relatives and onlookers, all with envious eyes fixed on the secret treasures now under her control, and the wicked stepfather Haji Amoo (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz) exerting every force he can to try and wrangle his late wife’s fortune. Aghdas’ only consistent ally is her maidservant (played by Oscar nominee/new voice of Gozer Shohreh Aghdashloo in her very first film role), but even she acts under mysterious motivations. Plots are made, plans are drawn, and all the while something in the basement thought sealed away grows stronger with every heated emotion and act of violence, an intrusion from the suppressed. Though it’s set during the Qajar Dynasty in Iranian history in the 1920s, the film’s observations are no less trenchant or pointed — certainly all too relevant.
You’d have to look hard to find a more dramatic staircase than the red-rugged pathway where all the secrets unfold in Chess of the Wind's majestic, monstrous house, a symmetrical ziggurat that calls to mind an ancient temple and predicts the scaling quest of Donkey Kong (or Cremaster 3). Writer-director Mohammed Reza Aslani uses the isolated levels of the home to wring the maximum drama from the movements of the cast, especially as regards Aghdas’ limited mobility. And the gathering of washerwomen, wives of the town, and bystanders who mass outside the house, dwarfed by this architectural cipher, are both the classical chorus and the reluctant witnesses to the emotionally and financially kinky games of those who, as Tracey Thorn put it, want and want but never truly have.
Chess of the Wind is showing Dec. 11 and 15 at the Belcourt.