Fifty years ago a bright-orange Chevrolet Impala (pictured above) drives towards an abandoned shipwreck surrounded by a strange cemetery in the middle of desert in Northern Iranian. Three men soon become embroiled in a murder investigation and the saga of various missing locals. They find out that they are in a ancient war cemetery constantly shaken by unexplained earthquakes and haunted by the figure of red dragon with black eyes that lives deep underground.
A Dragon Arrives! feels like some sort of Farsi Indiana Jones epic with a Middle Eastern James Bond soundtrack. The cinematography of the desert and Iranian culture in the 1960s is plush and boisterous, and often extremely beautiful, particularly inside the abandoned ship and its surroundings.
On the other hand, the narrative of the film is too complex, with an excessive number of characters and redundant plots. The stories are sometimes convoluted and disjointed. The movie is composed of several layers: the reenactment of the actual dragon myth, interviews recorded on tape by government officials at the time, plus footage of the film director Mani Haghighi himself and some alleged survivors of the legend in modern times. At times, it is extremely difficult to piece together the sequence of unfolding events in a congruent manner. The film is based on an actual events distorted by legend and the filmmaker’s imagination.
Iranian film has a long tradition of foregrounding the director’s apparatus (ie. involving the filmmaker in the story and filming it). Abbas Kierostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have done this exhaustively and in far more creative manners, truly submersing themselves in the film and interacting with their characters, or even pretending to be someone else. Haghighi merely film himself discussing some elements of the dragon myth and how the film came to being, similarly to a news anchor on TV.
Aesthetically, A Dragon Arrives is a very formal and conservative movie, with little innovation and subversive devices. The film is likely to be welcomed by the conservative Iranian government as a light entertaining tale for the masses, but it does not have much in common with deeply perceptive and ingenious cinema of Makhmalbak and Kierostami, or the highly politically-charged content of Jafar Panahi (who was the runner-up in the Berlin Film Festival exactly 10 years ago, taking home the Silver Bear home with the film Offside as well as the Golden Bear last year with Taxi Tehran).
A Dragon Arrives was the last screening of the official competition at the 66th Berlinale for the much coveted Berlin Golden Bear. The winner will be announced tomorrow. DMovies, which is live right now at the event, hazards a guess that Haghighi’s film will not take the main prize home.