Winner of the Best Film prize at last year’s London Film Festival, Iranian writer/director Panah Panahi’s first feature Hit the Road is about to open in the US – and you should definitely make time to join the road trip.
Set for a large part inside a car, Hit the Road brings us along with four members of a family as they make a journey across Iran to an unclear destination for initially unclear reasons. Details emerge from the characters’ conversations as the trip progresses, but the film still leaves the viewer with a nebulous sense of doubt at its emotional end.
The live-wire of the family is the younger son (6-year-old Rayan Sarlak). He’s full of energy, curious, musical, and loves superheroes – and he’s a bit of a handful. This also means that his antics can be a distraction to the other members of the family who are clearly struggling with more serious issues. He also provides some of the best comic moments. Totally the opposite is his older brother Farid (Amin Simiar) who is silent for most of the film, concentrating on his driving, but who turns out to be the reason for the journey.
The outstanding Pantea Panahiha is the mother, a woman whose only aim is to protect both her children from either emotional or physical harm – which leads to an extremely moving sequence from her at the end of the film capturing all possible emotions at once. And father of the family Hassan Majooni is hampered physically by a leg cast, hobbling on crutches across some rocky terrain seeming unable to fulfil his role as father – but manages to carve out lovely moments of connection with each of his sons during the course of the trip.
Despite the tension in the air – a sense of being followed or watched, together with the emotional journey of the family – there is also a warmth which comes from the family relationships. Mother and father feel like a couple who have been together forever and don’t need to say much to each other; it’s all understood from a glance. Working with a lively 6-year-old in your first feature must have had its challenges, but writer/director Panah Panahi has gained lots of experience from being on his father Jafar’s film sets and creates a family dynamic recognisable the world over. There are several scenes that I imagine Hirokazu Koreeda would be pleased with.
A special mention too for Amin Jafari’s cinematography. At times, it’s the stunning landscapes of Iran which take centre stage, whether it’s the emerald green pastures and hills of the borderlands or the amazing pistachio-coloured rocks nearer the start of the journey – each is captured with a depth which transports the viewer directly into the landscape. At other times we’re invited to focus on one of the family members in close up – yet we never lose track of what’s happening over father’s shoulder for example – it may be out of focus or in peripheral vision, but Jafari and Panahi ensure that we’re still aware of everything.
Hit the Road also blends in some judicious use of Iranian popular music (as would be expected on a road trip) and a handful of references to superhero and science-fiction films, which actually work in context and enrich the characters and story.
This is a quite remarkable first feature – it’s warm and funny, yet is underpinned by a serious situation for the family who are doing just what they can to make the right decision for the children, even at personal cost to the parents. It’s definitely worth the trip to the cinema to watch, and I’m excited to see what Panah Panahi brings to us in the future.