It would be disingenuous not to begin this review by mentioning that, yes, Panah Panahi is indeed related to the titan of Iranian cinema, Jafar Panahi. Panah is the acclaimed filmmaker’s son, and besides going to film school, he has also worked on his father’s films, most recently co-editing his latest feature, “3 Faces.” The most cynical among us may not be surprised to learn that the opening sequence of his feature debut “Hit the Road,” playing in Directors’ Fortnight, alone contains more thrilling cinema than most other films at this year’s Festival de Cannes put together. But a new effortless, clear-eyed talent is always worth celebrating.
A long take shot from inside a car parked by an Iranian highway, the sequence in question beautifully encapsulates all of the film’s qualities: the sophistication of its multi-layered structure, its mixture of contrasting yet complementary tones, its understated but meaningful visual language, the truthful performances from its small cast and its well-timed breaks from this realism. The camera turns on its axis to show, in the back seat, a small child (Rayan Sarlak) hitting the piano keys penciled into his father’s (Hassan Madjooni) leg plaster in time with the notes heard over the score — an intriguing fourth-wall break which could feel like an ostentatious flourish if it wasn’t such a compelling way to welcome the audience into the microcosm of this family. Outside behind the car is the mother (Pantea Panahiha), while in front, a young man (Amin Simiar) mournfully looks at the horizon then back at the others.
Panahi only gives us more information about the nature of this trip in snatches throughout the film, creating a feeling of apprehension while also communicating the family’s own fear about what they’re doing and the danger they’re putting themselves into. It doesn’t take very long to understand that their journey is taking them all to the Turkish border, where the eldest son is set to meet a man who will take him out of the country towards hopefully greener pastures. These fragments of straightforward information — about all they have sold to pay the smuggler for the trip, about the dangers of carrying a mobile phone, about whether they will be able to say goodbye to their son before he leaves — pierce through the otherwise exuberant atmosphere of the trip like so many bone-chilling reality checks.
Panahi is indeed careful to avoid solemn austerity at every turn, preferring to look at the simultaneous overlap of contradictory tones and realities that make up even the most momentous episodes of one’s life. Over a long and tedious car journey, even the heart-wrenching nature of such a trip is bound to come in and out of the consciousness of its characters. The meat of the action in “Hit the Road” is thus made of everyday conversation and standard family bickering, all energized and raised to the level of genuine comedy by the youngest son. This eminently likable force of nature constantly bouncing within the confines of the car makes a wonderful pair with his father, who handles his questions, frustrations, and demands with a kind of deadpan humor that is both amusing and touching, in the way it serves to protect the young child from some painful truths.
During this raucous journey, the eldest son, the designated driver, is understandably much less able than the others to conceal his sadness from his younger brother. Through his outbursts of frustration at their charade, Panahi offers glimpses at the existing dynamics between him and his parents. Pantea Panahiha in the role of the mother is especially striking, overcoming clichés to make the profound sadness of her very emotional and worried character seem genuine and raw. A scene of strained (non-)dialogue between father and eldest son feels a little more artificial, but it’s a small hitch in a work that otherwise maintains a firm, confident hold on its audience through even the most unexpectedly surreal fantasy sequences. Panahi manages to keep an impressive amount of plates spinning all at once in “Hit the Road,” a breath of fresh air and a truly original work that marks him as a talent to watch and raises the bar for all the other films playing in Directors’ Fortnight but also across the whole Festival de Cannes this year. [A]