FILM Iran is the kind of nation where political protest in public art has to be muted or disguised. It was well buried in recent hit A Separation, and is just slightly more apparent in Rafi Pitts' The Hunter. Shot and set during the contentious 2009 Presidential campaign — Pitts is a rare expat filmmaker allowed to shoot in the country his family left decades ago — it starts as a Kafka-esque portrait of quiet desperation in a cold, empty Tehran, then turns into a sort of existential thriller. The precise message may be ambiguous, but it's no surprise this two-year-old feature has so far played nearly everywhere but Iran itself.
Ali (Pitts) is released from prison after some years, his precise crime never revealed. Told that with his record he can't expect to get a day shift on his job as security guard at an automotive plant, he keeps hours at odds with his working wife Sara (Mitra Haijar) and six-year-old daughter Saba (Saba Yaghoobi). Still, they try to spend as much time together as possible, until one day Ali returns to find them uncharacteristically gone all day.
After getting the bureaucratic runaround he's finally informed by police that something tragic has occurred; one loved one is dead, the other missing. When his thin remaining hope is dashed, with police notably useless in preventing that grim additional news, Ali snaps — think Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 Targets. He's soon in custody, albeit in that of two bickering officers who get them all lost in the countryside, the terse but strikingly shot film now recalling elements of Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing (2010) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) in its endless pursuit through imposing landscapes.
Pitts, a long-ago child performer cast here only when the actor originally hired had to be replaced, makes Ali seem pinched from the inside out, as if in permanent recoil from past and anticipated abuse. This thin, hunched frame, vulnerable big ears, and hooded eyes — the goofily oversized cap he wears at work seems a deliberate affront — seems so fixed an expression of unhappiness that when he flashes a great smile, for a moment you might think it must be someone else. He's an everyman who only grows more shrunken once the film physically opens up into a natural world no less hostile for being beautiful.
Ali actually does hunt game, earlier on — but in The Hunter, we glean he's been the hunted one way or another his whole life. The film's score is sparse percussion that, like the drums in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, count down toward an inexorable extinction that bears mythological (or authoritarian) fate's hand.
THE HUNTER opens Fri/30 at the Roxie.