Flamingo No. 13 appears to have been made on a miniscule budget. Many of its cast are, evidently from their performances, new to film. The print currently travelling the international festival circuit is poorly subtitled, few lines grammatically sound and some even impossible to interpret accurately. It is perhaps surprising, then, that Flamingo No. 13 is one of the year’s most striking, beautiful, and best films.
Living among a village populated by those exiled from society for non-specified reasons, Solaiman is consumed by his desire to hunt a flamingo, a pursuit expressly forbidden by law. Finding temporary fulfilment in his union with the recently widowed Tamay, he soon finds himself unable to supress his erratic urges.
Flamingo No. 13’s opening scene features an impressive shot, framing a small group of men against a vast mountain in the background. Another man, well-dressed compared to the ragamuffin bunch which surrounds him, is seated at a table, calling the assembly one by one to be fingerprinted. We are never given a direct explanation of this procession, which seems to be an annual occurrence, leaving us to suspect that they are perhaps former criminals, ostracised from society and confined to this vast rural landscape as a form of loose parole. They have forged an unusual community, assembled from shabbily constructed huts and centred on the makeshift tavern in which the men gather by night.
The sense of fellowship which appears to bind these people together in their exclusion from formal society may be the one thing most clearly communicated by Flamingo No. 13, the narrative interspersed with various displays of cultural celebration, from ceremonious dance to unusual musical gatherings. While some of these form the basis of weddings and funerals, many function simply as interludes; these are chances for director Hamid Aligholian and his cinematographer Esmaeil Aghajani to step back from the story and revel in pure cinematics. Long shots, often in silhouette, mix with the pleasing music to create an aesthetic experience one can simply be lost in. It is in its visuals that Flamingo No. 13 finds its greatness, Aligholian and Aghajani employing the surroundings and seasons as additional characters as richly defined as those of the story. From the mists of spring to the snows of winter, there is an undeniable effulgence to every frame, each image enriched with the atmosphere of peacefulness of this remote location. Poems recited by one of the film’s secondary characters often accompany these incredible scenes, adding vastly to the film’s artful sense of carefully-constructed lyricism.
Given the inherently political nature of modern Iranian cinema, no better exemplified than in the government’s infamous and highly controversial sentencing of director Jafar Panahi, it is no surprise that what few critical assessments there have been of Flamingo No. 13 have tended to read it as an allegorical take on the state of the Iranian film industry, an interpretation which seems applied by default to any new film which manages to emerge from the highly difficult milieu. While such a reading finds a degree of support in Solaiman’s story, the hunter pursuing the flamingo despite the potential consequences seen by some as a reflection of Iranian filmmakers, this is something of a stretch, obfuscating the real themes explored in the film.
Most poignantly, Flamingo No. 13 explores in great detail the concept of freedom. Its narrative is deceptively simplistic, a basic story designed as a proxy through which to highlight and comment upon one of humanity’s great follies. We seem ever consumed by our hunt for freedom, always seeking to reach a new level of independence and isolation from the influences of others. This is at the heart of Solamain’s obsession, his endless hunt for the flamingo an expression of his insatiable desire for freedom. When he is given the chance early in the film to shoot the bird, he decides not to, saying it is too beautiful to kill. Despite this, he continues to hunt it, seeking more what it represents than the flamingo itself. The bizarreness of his pursuit and the fundamental contradiction at its heart, as well as the point the film is making about our desire for freedom, are summated best in Tamay’s words: “it was so close he did not see what was in front of him”. We are so occupied by our quest for individuality and freedom that our vision of what exactly it is has become conflicted, rendering us tragically unable to recognise it when we do find it.
To say that Flamingo No. 13 is flawless would be hugely misrepresentative; indeed, in many ways, it is a film beset with minor problems and issues. What is remarkable about it, however, is that the poeticism of its visuals and the depth of the thought it inspires allows it to overcome the pitfalls of some poor performances and inaccurate translations to the point where these are all but forgotten by the film’s conclusion. A sensual pleasure; a look at a culture; a study of humanity; a mediation on isolation and freedom; a gripping work of visually arresting pure cinema: Flamingo No. 13 is all of these things and more atop them.
[notification type=”star”]90/100 – A sensual pleasure; a look at a culture; a study of humanity; a mediation on isolation and freedom; a gripping work of visually arresting pure cinema: Flamingo No. 13 is all of these things and more atop them.[/notification]