Had Jafar Panahi not already used the title The Mirror in 1997, he could have applied it to any of the four features he’s made this decade. The Iranian director appears as himself in all four—This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi (2015), and now 3 Faces (2018)—effectively turning the camera on himself as a sort-of mirror. It would be shortsighted, though, to reduce these works with the label of autobiography. For one thing Panahi is too imaginative an artist to limit his interests to just himself. Like the French filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Philippe Garrel, Panahi recognizes how cinema can both enlarge a director’s persona and hold it up for scrutiny—you could say he brings the camera to himself in order to interrogate how it works. In The Mirror, Panahi exposed how much he usually controls as a director by allowing the little girl who stars in the movie to take control of the narrative. His films of the 2010s follow a similar trajectory, questioning how much artists can control the world around them.

This question, of course, is not just metaphysical for Panahi. The director has been banned from making movies in Iran since 2010, and unless that ban is revoked it will stay in effect until 2030. The Iranian government has also forbidden Panahi from leaving the country, making it impossible for him to work abroad. So I’m not surprised that numerous people writing about Panahi’s recent films have overlooked their metaphysical and formal aspects by concentrating on the fact that they’ve been made at all. The stories of Panahi’s efforts to get his movies made and seen are indeed entertaining, even heroic (This Is Not a Film was famously smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake), but let’s not praise them simply because they exist. Taxi is on one level about Panahi’s experience as the victim of a restrictive government, but what makes it a great movie is how the director is able to see in his plight a connection to people who are suffering under the Iranian regime for any reason. It’s a film about how cinema unites people, not to mention a funny, perceptive depiction of what it’s like to drive other people around all day.

3 Faces is no less perceptive, delivering a richly detailed account of life in a rural Iranian village. Panahi characterizes the community of Saran (located in northeastern Iran near Tabriz) through its geography, customs, and manner of social interaction. Even though the Tehran-based filmmaker acknowledges he’s observing this community as an outsider, his curiosity is irrepressible and contagious. It’s also the driving force of the film’s narrative.

3 Faces begins as the director and actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself) embark on the long drive to Saran after a young woman who lives there sends a video to Panahi’s cell phone begging for Jafari’s help. In the video the young woman, Marziyeh, explains she’s been accepted into a fine-arts school in Tehran to study acting, but her parents, who don’t want anyone in their family becoming artists, have forbidden her from leaving the village. The despairing Marziyeh concludes the video by putting a noose around her neck, then dropping her phone. Was she committing suicide or merely threatening it? Feeling a sense of responsibility for another persecuted artist, Panahi decides to look for her in Saran and offer moral support if she’s still alive.

Jafari suspects that Marziyeh was only playacting her suicide attempt, but the director isn’t so sure. He insists that the video couldn’t have been doctored, and in any case, he can’t resist her cry for help. The opening 20 minutes of 3 Faces find Panahi and Jafari bickering over the verisimilitude of the video on their drive, which gets interrupted by phone calls from Panahi’s mother (who wants to know if he’s making another movie) and the director of the film Jafari has walked off of in order to make the journey. When the two arrive in Saran, they’re full of questions, but they’re unable to ask them because they’re instantly swept up into the life of the village. They interrupt a wedding ceremony taking place on the only road leading into the town; in the village center, they’re mistaken for government workers, whom the residents are waiting on to fix the broken water and gas lines. Over the next day, Panahi and Jafari interact with a variety of townspeople, who begin to treat the visitors with respect after they realize the two are famous artists.

As the protagonists get sidetracked from their mission by their meetings with the villagers, it becomes clear that 3 Faces isn’t so much about whether Panahi and Jafari will find Marziyeh than it is about the pleasure of interacting with people unlike yourself and how being a famous artist can make such interactions possible. The film develops a grand irony in presenting the difference between how the villagers regard the visiting artists and how they regard Marziyeh, whose dream of becoming a film actress they view with contempt. When Panahi and Jafari aren’t talking about the troubled young woman, they find the people of Saran exceedingly gracious. The film’s amusing climax finds an elderly local trying to pass off to the bewildered Jafari a package containing his son’s foreskin, believing it will give her and Panahi good luck. The director could certainly use it (the luck, that is). Panahi never mentions his ban from filmmaking in 3 Faces, yet this reality governs the movie as a structuring absence. Given how much he’s suffered as a film artist, can one really blame the villagers for not wanting Marziyeh to enter the Iranian film industry?

Another irony of 3 Faces is that Panahi can’t escape the movies even when he’s not allowed to make them. Early on in the film, Jafari reminds the director of a screenplay he wrote about suicide several years earlier, raising the possibility that he’s now living inside the film he was unable to shoot. Other scenes involving Marziyeh’s angry younger brother, who flies into a rage whenever he hears about his sister’s acting dreams, feel like they could have come from Panahi’s The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006), both of which concerned the daily persecution women face in Iran. The film’s depiction of cinema as a hall of mirrors recalls Abbas Kiarostami’s head-spinning masterpiece Through the Olive Trees (1994), on which Panahi worked as assistant director, and the similarity is likely intentional. 3 Faces is the first feature Panahi has made since Kiarostami’s death in 2016, and it evokes the work of his old boss in other respects: the premise of a director driving to a rural village to track down someone who may be dead recalls Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More . . . (1992), and the theme of suicide recalls his Taste of Cherry (1997). This is another example of how Panahi, under the guise of looking inward, is really using cinema to celebrate his connection to others.   v