Every once in a while, there’s a little miracle involving a lost film. Rumours of its greatness, the memories of the few who had seen it, echoing down the decades. And then, out of nowhere, something turns up in an archive, in a spring cleaning—and there is a resurrection. For almost four decades, Mohammad Reza Aslani’s Chess Of The Wind was as good as lost. Screened only once, at the 1976 Tehran International Film Festival, it was banned during the Iranian cultural revolution. A bootleg copy was passed around among cinephiles over the years, but no one thought they would ever see the film as it was meant to be. Then, in 2014, as if willed by the movie gods, the director’s son found the negative in an antiques store in Tehran.
The film can now be seen, in its startling original form, on MUBI. It takes place in a gothic mansion somewhere in the early 20th century (though the last shot in the film is the Iran of 1976, when the film was shot). Autocratic Hadji Amoo (Mohammad-Ali Keshavarz) rules over the household, which has recently come into the hands of the wheelchair-bound Lady Aghdas (Fakhri Khorvash), his stepdaughter, who is being wooed by one of two adopted brothers (the other is having an affair with her maid). When Hadji Amoo tries to take the house from Aghdas, she takes an extreme step (in a chilling bit of foreshadowing, one of the servants remarks how Aghdas’ mother, the former owner of the mansion, was handy with acid). And so Chess Of The Wind becomes a psychodrama, and a ghost story, building to a truly feverish last act.
If this sounds nothing like the Iranian cinema you have seen…that’s probably the case. Chess Of The Wind is far from the social realism of Abbas Kiarostami or the poetry of Mohsen Makhmalbaf. This is high melodrama, textured to an almost suffocating degree. The film is more like Rainer Werner Fassbinder in its vitriol, its grasping characters and its decaying grandeur. Just a few years before its release, the German had made The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, two women confined to a luxurious room—not unlike Aghdas and her maid (Shohreh Aghdashloo, who later acted in Kiarostami’s The Report and now works in American film and TV), down to the lesbian overtones in the scene where their hands intertwine in an erotic caress. This was surely a big reason for the film’s banning, though the scenes where the servants discuss forced conscription must have been politically explosive too.
This is an erotic film, but devoid of tenderness. Everything teeters on the edge of perversity. Hadji is rumoured to have a preference for young boys. After he’s felled by a blow of a flail, Aghdashloo’s heavy breathing as she helps carry the body out of the room seems to suggest other exertions. Later in the film, what starts out as a playful love scene between the maid and her lover morphs into one of violence. The music, though played on Iranian instruments, sounds like avant-garde jazz. Even the elements acquire an unstable feverishness as the film progresses, with the Greek chorus of women washing clothes finding themselves in the midst of a sudden storm.
It’s possible to imagine a phantom stage production of this film—most of the scenes are conversations between two, three, four people in one or the other palatial room or on the staircase, which sees several acts of violence. Yet, Aslani’s intricate long takes and close-ups of faces, objects and hands—especially hands—explodes the neutrality of theatre viewership.
Like Barry Lyndon (1975), this film is shot exclusive in natural light and candlelight. “At the time the story takes place, there was no power,” Aslani told The Film Stage. “So, realistically, it should be shot with candlelight for all of the obvious reasons, but the main point for me is about the shadows and what they hide. This light is a kind of cinematic expression, it enhances the obscurity of everything. Whatever these lights are revealing at any moment, they are hiding something at the same time.” The candles lend the proceedings an appropriately horror-movie flicker, never more effective than the surreal, hellish red sequence where Hadji suddenly appears, like the devil in Häxan, and Aghdashloo rises from a bath and creeps across the room like an awakened vampire.
At the start of this piece, I left out the step between rediscovery and rerelease—the restoration of Chess Of The Wind by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, under the aegis of The Film Foundation. The organisation’s invaluable work is getting an extended showcase on MUBI, with Aslani’s film, Héctor Babenco’s Pixote (1981), Mário Peixoto’s Limit (1931) and Jean-Pierre Dikongue-Pipa’s The Child Of Another (1975) already streaming on the platform. They will be joined in the coming months by Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), Med Hondo’s Oh, Sun (1967), Sergei Parajanov’s The Color Of Pomegranates (1969), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object At Noon (2000), Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), and others. There’s no better place to start than Chess Of The Wind, which will shake up your notions about Iranian cinema.