by Afra Nariman
Hit the Road (2022)
Director: Panah Panahi
Stars: Hasan Ma’juni, Pantea Panahiha, Rayan Sarlak, Amin Simiar
A Three-Part Analysis of Hit the Road: Aesthetic, Family, and Ideological Critique
Overview of the Film
“Don’t be scared.”
A family of four and their sick dog embark on a road trip, that at first, is left unclear where exactly they are headed and why. It is gradually revealed that they are driving to a hidden location in the mountains, where they will be sending their eldest son to escape the country in search of freedom and better opportunities. To do so, the family has sold everything in their possession, including their home, to fund their son’s journey — with loose plans of getting things together once they ensure his safe passage through the mountains.
Part I: Aesthetic
There are a few certain frames in Hit the Road that seem to be placed, crafted, and shot to mirror various Abbas Kiarostami films. Also, with the car as a main location of sorts, or a “home” for its characters and the story — as well as the emphasis on nature and landscapes, you can’t help but feel the connection that Panah Panahi, in his direction of this film, feels and has to Kiarostami’s work (as well as to his own father’s) and to the roots of Iranian cinema generally — it’s tradition, form, aesthetic, and its correlation with the theme of “truth” (i.e: see the multiple instances referring to the idea of honesty). All that being said, Panahi’s own, unique cinematic voice is present throughout nearly each scene of his debut.
While the film has many of the aforementioned elements that tie it to the traditional roots of Iranian cinema, a new take on storytelling still becomes the basis of Panahi’s film, not only through its balanced integration of comedy, but also through its referencing of Western/American characters and films such as Batman (presumably from The Dark Knight Trilogy) and 2001: A Space Odyssey — both of which also work to inform important moments in the film. They are topics of emotionally charged mother/son and father/son conversations that discuss the listed films and characters in a way which feels thematically relevant to the film’s own story and events. Particularly interesting is the influence that 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to end up having. It begins with the mother of the family asking her oldest son what he thinks the best film of all time is. To this, like most lovers of film would probably react, he resists answering, claiming that it’s an impossible question. Shortly after though, he resorts to claiming its Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic. She asks him if it’s beautiful. He responds:
“Yes, it really is. It’s like zen. When you watch it, it calms you down. It takes you deep into galaxies.”
She asks him what happens at the end of 2001.
“At the end, the man is alone in a spaceship. He goes deep into a black hole. He keeps going and going and going. For 30 minutes it just shows that he’s going and going deeper in. Crossing the limits of time and space…”
Near the end of this film, after an emotional and utterly sad moment in which the oldest son has officially left the family and the country (unexpectedly too soon), and as the rest of the family drives away; the camera is set in the POV of the moving car, and we see the road in front of them being swallowed up by the camera as they pass by time and space in their own way, and it looks eerily similar to the scene that the older brother referenced from 2001 — it’s mesmerizing — only it’s not in space, though it is a different sort of black hole in some ways. We don’t see bright lights, we see barren landscapes. This moment draws our attention back to the film’s opening, where the mother asks “where are we?” and the sarcastic youngest son replies, “we’re dead.” Of course, at that point nobody was dead and we weren’t even sure why the family was on a road trip yet. Now, at the end of the film, they are short one family member and unsure of his well-being and whereabouts, and immediately after this POV scene, we learn that the family dog has passed away.
The film ends with one last blending of an ode to Kiarostami and the traditional, with the young Panahi’s own, new and original voice. While the parents are burying the family dog, the youngest son begins to lip sync a song. This surely matches his personality and actions throughout the film; only in this instance, he breaks the fourth wall by looking right at the camera when he sings, acknowledging its presence and ours, and therefore the camera’s implications. In other words, Panahi makes sure to remind us that we are only watching a film — something Kiarostami was always quick to emphasize, most notably in his beautifully unique choice of ending for Taste of Cherry. But again, Panahi does so in his own way.
Part II: Family
A common trope of Iranian cinema (as well as in the cinemas of many other countries in the East), in Hit the Road, “family” is representative of the nation. This can be observed via the film’s portrayal of a family disintegrating due to the socio-political circumstances around them — which I will discuss further in the next section. So much of Iran’s youth lives their present on the road to separating from their families — whether that’s because of migration, or in the worst cases, death. One of the many rallying cries of the 2022 Iranian revolution has been the assertion that the Islamic Republic regime is “killing our youth.”
In Hit the Road, the separation between youth and family is presented through the factor of migration, as the eldest son is preparing to leave his country and his family, in hopes of a more promising future where his fate would no longer be tied to the shackles imposed by the regime’s oppression and their mismanagement of the country. For 43 years now, Iranian youth have lived this reality. There are generations of Iranian diaspora located around the world who left their home under similar circumstances — most commonly in the years directly before and after the 1979 Islamic Republic revolution. In Hit the Road, we are offered a glimpse into how such an emotional moment of familial separation is experienced by those involved; and how scary it can be under the circumstances that the family in this film find themselves in. It is important to note that, given the nature of his urgent escape, it’s very likely that he is also escaping the other reason that Iranian youth get separated from their family — death at the hands of the regime’s authorities.
Relating this section about the film’s exploration of the theme of ‘family,’ with the first section in which I focused on the film’s aesthetic — it’s vital to acknowledge the film’s identity as a “road film,” and how it presents itself as such in the context of this discussion regarding the film’s portrayal of a disintegrating family being representative of the broader nation. Much of the film takes place inside a moving car, in which the son who separates from the family in the end, is the driver navigating the bumpy roads and rocky mountain-sides. This exudes feelings of instability and fragility that are directly applicable to the film’s presentation of the the titular family, as well as to the broader family unit as it exists in Iran; and the state of things in Iran generally. The young Panahi already shows a masterful ability to intertwine his themes and his style to tell a single story, simultaneously from multiple angles. The storytelling mode of the “road film,” also acts as a mechanism that creates space for social commentary and critique of ideology.
Part III: Ideological Critique
Just as it is one of the main motivations for Iran’s current 2022 revolution, one of the the central factors of the titular family’s mission in Hit the Road is a complete and total sacrifice in order to capture a hope for freedom and a better life for the next generation (the eldest son). Again, ‘family’ in this film is representative of the nation.
Panahi embeds his social commentary both literally and subversively. There is dialogue that directly critiques the government’s mismanagement of natural lands, and of the country generally. Additionally, the first act of the film illustrates the characters’ fear that the government will track them (hence they ditch their phones, as that is a requirement of the people helping the eldest son escape). In a scene where the younger son sarcastically asks:
“Dad, are we cockroaches now?”
His father, plays along, but still responds insightfully:
“We are now.”
Like cockroaches, the family in the film — again, representative of families in Iran, generally — lives, and more accurately survives, in midst very difficult circumstances due to the nature of what life is like under the regime. As the family has also made a significant decision in helping their eldest son illegally leave the country, effectively making their livelihood more threatened and their lives a potential target of the authorities; their prevailing survival is akin to the cockroach’s knack for surviving the harshest circumstances.
Although never directly mentioned; because of the nature of the story being the eldest son’s eventual leaving of the country for the sake of better opportunities, we can interpret much of the film as commenting on the present state of Iranian life under the oppressive regime. The characters’ constant criticisms of the country’s mismanaged infrastructure is another indication that the government is a target of Panahi’s commentary. Knowing the intricacies of the Panahi family’s ongoing experiences with the regime, it isn’t hard to imagine that Panah Panahi, like his father, has his sights set on shedding light on the cruelty and oppressive injustice of the government and it’s clutches on Iranian life, of which the eldest son is escaping from.
Some of the film’s criticism is also done through portraying (unintentional) civil disobedience. In Iran, it is illegal to own a dog. If the authorities catch you with one, they will take the dog away from you, and most likely kill her/him. In Hit the Road, they have a beloved family dog. Additionally, in Iran it is illegal for women to sing or dance in public, or on camera. In Hit the Road, the mother passionately does both; notably with the intent to highlight the prevailing joy of life, hoping for her message to reach her often sulking, eldest son.
The film’s final scene — of the youngest son lip-syncing a song while his parents burry the dog — cements Panahi’s hopeful perspective on all of the above issues. The young boy, representing the youth of the next generation, is shown singing in the face of death (the dog’s). In these images, there lies the sentiment that hope is tangible; and a worthwhile future, possible. On the road there though — the road being consistent with the family’s journey in the film — there is an unavoidable tension between the joy of knowing that there is hope, and the sadness that accompanies the journey it takes to get there, which is filled with much sacrifice. The song being played in this scene voices:
“Stay beside us, and while distraught we are waiting for spring. Stay beside us, so that together we make the Sun rise again.”
The young boy having just abruptly lost his older brother and his beloved dog, still sings with hope. Panahi’s masterful balance of hope and despair, comedy and sorrow, makes for a film that can be enjoyed, appreciated, moving, revealing, and insightful. Hit the Road is an important debut feature by the son of one of the true giants of Iranian cinema, and cements the young Panahi as a great filmmaker in his own right, and one to watch, hopefully for decades to come.
MY RATING /5:
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