Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine

film by Bahman Farmanara

Under the guise of making a documentary for Japanese producers about death rituals in Iran, Farmanara has created an eloquent critique of the many ways that the living can be deadened. At intervals throughout the movie, a series of individual Muslim religious leaders, each set against a black background in full regalia and looking very self-conscious about being filmed, read in proclamatory voices from a book of religious prescriptions for death rituals. Meanwhile most of the movie follows the adventures of Farmanara, who essentially plays himself: an Iranian filmmaker who has not made a film for 24 years because the government has blackballed him. Throughout his day, Farmanara encounters death-in-life in its many forms. His character is told again and again that he should be dead (he is overweight, smokes, has had a heart attack, and repeatedly refers to his failing health).

Driving to his wife's grave on the anniversary of her death, he picks up a woman holding a child. She informs him that the child was born yesterday and is already dead: the younger generation, raised under the strictures of Iran's conservative religious government, are dead before they're alive.

After he drops her off and visits his wife's grave, Farmanara sees that his grave is already literally filled. Due to an error, the cemetery has filled his grave (where he hoped to rest eternally beside his wife) with someone else. The cemetery staff (and later a succession of friends) say that maybe he bought a "two-deep" grave rather than side-by-side—and he is amazed to hear that "two-deep" graves even exist. "My friend," someone tells him, "this city is becoming so populated that we will soon have 'ten-deep' graves"—a grave prognosis that hints that Tehran is fast becoming a city of death (real and symbolic).

Farmanara returns home to learn that his son-in-law is missing. He then tours the city morgues looking for the body, finding instead a fifteen-year-old girl who committed suicide. Shaken by this image of blossoming life cutting itself short, Farmanara vows to live and sets about visiting his old artist friends whose works (like Farmanara's) the country's religious leaders have banned from being made available to an audience. The artists and their works are full of life but are as good as dead.

Farmanara then pays a visit to his mother who has Alzheimer's disease; she is alive but as absent as a ghost. And here is where the title of the film comes in: he smells in his childhood home the jasmine he associates with his youth, but also the camphor he associates with death (camphor is used to preserve bodies).

The film images imply that death, whether imposed on a body by time or on a soul by other humans, should inspire you to live life to the fullest in the here and now. The religious leaders we see in this film believe that death is an event to be met with a strict set of actions, a recipe as it were. Farmanara's character learns that it is rather to be met with the honest emotion of grief, and grief's many uncertain routes of expression. The unspoken corollary to all this is that life is to be met with joy in its many uncertain manifestations, and that the religious leaders do not understand this.

(Author's note: I saw this movie and wrote this review on September 10, 2001. What we all saw happen the next day was another reminder not to let death in any of its forms keep us from honoring what really matters on this earth.)

One of the film's techniques begs a corollary review: the importance of boredom in art. Most art and certainly most films consider one of their aims to be entertainment. I've found that when my attention as an audience wanders, when my whims are not catered to each second as they are in a Hollywood blockbuster, I have the time to ask, "Why is my attention flagging? Why would someone who has set out to entertain me bore me instead?"

I found myself watching the lengthy scenes in Farmanara's Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, in which he walks through tunnels beneath a hospital; looks out at a featureless landscape through the window, alone in a train compartment; traverses a dim parking garage, etc., and, as I was watching, I wondered why he would take the time to leave these scenes in the movie. Then I realized that they are visual metaphors for the "tunnel of light" and the "pit of darkness" so often used to describe death. They are a reinforcement of the idea that the main character is already dead (or at least is alive in the city of the dead).

All this to say: the next time a work of art makes you feel "what's the point?", it might be in the midst of making its point.

—Kevin Grandfield