The rediscovery of a film is seldom as fascinating a story as the film itself, but that’s the case with Chess of the Wind (Shatranj-e Baad), directed by Iranian film-maker Mohammad Reza Aslani. It was only screened twice in Tehran in 1976, once to a cinema of hostile critics, and then to an empty cinema – the bad reviews had done their work. “The rediscovery of this film is great for me,” says Aslani, now aged 76, and still living in Tehran. “But it also allows audiences to view Iranian cinema from another perspective, and to discover other auteur film-makers who have been marginalised because of the complexity of their films.”
Critical of the Shah’s royalist government, the film also featured strong female leads and homosexuality, which didn’t endear it to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime either. In the politically tumultuous years that followed the Iranian revolution of 1979, the film was banned, and then presumed lost. “Critics in Iran at the time of its release claimed the film didn’t make sense, that my father was just trying to make an intellectual film, to imitate European cinema,” says the director’s daughter, Gita Aslani Shahrestani. But Aslani Shahrestani was determined not to let her father’s legacy languish. A writer and academic based in Paris, she was uniquely suited to the task. “About seven years ago I was working on my PhD about auteur cinema in Iran, and this film was part of it, so I started to look for the film.”
Having searched the international film archives without finding a copy, Aslani Shahrestani turned to her brother Amin – based in Tehran – to help in her investigation. Nothing could be found in the Iranian laboratories and archives either. It seemed that Chess of the Wind was lost for good. Then, browsing in a junk shop in 2014, Amin spotted a pile of film cans. On enquiring what they contained, the proprietor said he didn’t know; they were simply on sale as a decorative element. Like something out of a fairy tale, on opening them Amin discovered a complete copy of his father’s long-lost film. Still banned in Iran, the print was smuggled out of the country via a private delivery service to Paris, where work began on restoring the film, overseen by Martin Scorsese’s non-profit organisation, The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, in association with the Cineteca di Bologna.
Chess of the Wind is a gothic family tale, following the (mis)fortunes of a paraplegic heiress played by Fakhri Khorvash, her angular face a study in controlled despair. Seeking to maintain her fragile independence, she’s beset on all sides by predatory men – her stepfather, his nephews, the local commissar – who all seek to prise her fortune from her. She’s aided against them by her handmaiden, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo (nominated for an Oscar for her role in House of Sand and Fog). An erotic tension between mistress and maid adds spice – and complexity – to the proceedings.
The opulent, claustrophobic interiors are reminiscent of Persian miniatures. There’s also something of the gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe. The influence of European cinematic masters like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti and Robert Bresson is also apparent; the camera lingers on hands as they roll cigarettes, serve food, and feed gunpowder down the barrel of a gun, finding beauty in these simple actions. The sound design also stands out: wolves howl and dogs bay as they circle the house, ratcheting up the sense of menace; crows caw, jangling the nerves; heavy breathing makes the characters’ isolation in this haunted house increasingly oppressive. The soundtrack – an early work by trailblazing female composer Sheyda Gharachedaghi – takes inspiration from traditional Iranian music, and sounds like demented jazz.
Initial reactions to the restored film have been rapturous, to the delight of its director. “I was not expecting such a positive reaction,” says Aslani. “Of course, I’m very happy this film is finally being viewed fairly, and not through a lens that values populist cinema and propaganda.”
Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive, who programmed the film in this year’s BFI London film festival, says, “I think this film will have an impact on the world film canon – its ambition on so many different levels is extraordinary. It has a resonance far beyond an Iranian cinema niche. I found it genuinely shocking at times. I think it will confound so many people’s expectations not only of the cinema, but also of the culture of Iran. I can confidently say that audiences won’t have seen anything quite like this, no matter what their taste in cinema.”
Sadly, Aslani’s film-making career was a casualty of Iran’s political upheavals. Before Chess of the Wind, which he directed aged 33, Aslani had made two short films: a documentary (Hassanlou Cup, 1964), and a wry political allegory critical of the Shah’s government (The Quail, 1969). He’d also directed the first season of a television series (Samak Ayyar, 1974) that was roundly criticised for its idiosyncratic, uncommercial style. Afterwards, he remained in Iran, continuing to work within the Iranian film industry. He’s since made more than 10 documentaries, an experimental piece (Tehran, A Conceptual Art in 2011) and another feature film, The Green Fire (2008), but his output has been severely curtailed – both practically and conceptually – by his situation. Yet he still has plans. “I hope to make another feature,” says Aslani. “I’ve had a script for 10 years, but because I’ve been labelled uncommercial and unentertaining in Iran, nobody wants to risk producing it. It’s a historical film about one of the greatest Iranian poets, and the style of the film again recalls Persian miniatures, western painting and the cinema of Visconti and Bresson.”
Meanwhile, Chess of the Wind is a reminder of his talent, and acts as a touching tribute by Gita Aslani Shahrestani to her father’s legacy. “When he saw the restoration he said it was like seeing a therapist, that it reminded him why he’d wanted to be a film-maker in the first place,” says Aslani Shahrestani. “He was really happy. He regrets nothing. He said the film was like a baby he’d lost, and now they’re reunited.”
• Chess of the Wind is available for free on the BFI Player from 10–13 October as part of the London film festival.