Land of Dreams review – Shirin Neshat’s satire on Americana is colourful but flimsy

The Iranian-born artist’s film, co-directed by Shoja Azari, looks sweet and sunny – but its freeze-dried sensibility eventually grates

Simin Hakak is a headstrong young woman from Iran – by way of Cincinnati – who works as a dreamcatcher for the US census bureau. That is to say, she travels door-to-door asking nonplussed citizens to recount their most vivid, recent subconscious ramble. Simin explains that this is a government initiative to safeguard their security. In fact it’s all part of a deep-state plot to control people’s brains and hard-wire their fantasies. Remember that the next time a census taker comes calling.

Written and directed by Iranian-born artists Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, Land of Dreams arrives as a piece of hyper-real candyfloss with a gentle satirical edge, like a sweeter, sunnier version of a Yorgos Lanthimos film. It bounces busy Simin through an archetypal Americana where she interviews a brash suburban couple, a soulful black artist and a grinning evangelist who likes ranting about homosexuals. Her escapades are diverting; the encounters pile up thick and fast. But the tale’s deadpan dialogue and freeze-dried sensibility eventually starts to grate.

Helping us stay the course is a crisp central performance from Sheila Vand, who imbues our heroine with just the right mixture of determination and bemusement. Along the way, she acquires a rough-diamond bodyguard (Matt Dillon, also fine) and a love-struck young suitor (William Moseley) she can’t seem to shake off. At one stage the bureau sends Simon to conduct her census at “the Colony”, a secret compound in the desert that is filled with ageing Iranian revolutionaries. And it is this assignment which briefly ruffles her composure. It nudges her towards a reckoning with her own history and a dream of the past she would rather not recall.

One of the pleasures of a festival such as Venice is the thrill of discovery, the experience of stumbling cold into a screening, not knowing what to expect, happy to take your chances with whatever’s on offer. Away from the main competition, the place is like a thrift shop or a flea market. Sometimes you’ll uncover a mass of cheap junk and sometimes hidden treasure. On other occasions you’ll run across something like Land of Dreams: colourful, eccentric and flimsy, not quite fit for purpose; a film to weigh up for a moment and then set back on the stall. By this time next week I’ll probably have forgotten it was here.

• Land of Dreams screens at the Venice film festival.

Contributor

Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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