Rebirth is the theme of Iranian writer-director Bahman Farmanara’s first film in over two decades, a semi-autobiographical piece in which he himself plays a filmmaker called Bahman Farjami, who’s been kept from working for twenty years by government censors. The episodic picture covers his experiences over a day in which he confronts his personal problems and family ghosts while researching a possible project on national funeral rites. It’s clear that Farjami/Farmanara is haunted by the imminence of his own demise–culminating in a comical vision of his own wake, where his wishes are studiously ignored over his objections (his dreaming shade attends the event) by the mourners–but in the final sequence he’s reborn both personally and artistically, an exultant moment expressed for Farjami in the experience of a lovely spring morning and for Farmanara in “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine” itself.
This isn’t one of those pictures of the Iranian New Wave that hones in on a major social problem, like the brutalization of women, and brilliantly encapsulates it; nor does it resemble the lovely portraits other filmmakers have drawn of the plight of the Iranian younger generation. This is a more rambling, ramshackle affair, which touches upon many of the injustices and fears that confront today’s Iran, but in an indirect, glancing way rather than head-on. It does so within the context of Farjami’s sometimes dark, occasionally witty search for artistic rejuvenation–a kind of low-key variant of Guido’s journey in Fellini’s “8 1/2.” But although the picture has effective moments of drama (as when Farjami gives a ride to an abused female hitchhiker) and comedy (an in a confrontation with some officious bureaucrats at a cemetery), the result has nowhere near the imagination, sophistication or overarching vision of that great film, nor does the rumpled Farmanara suggest anything like the complexity that Marcello Mastroianni brought to the frazzled Italian director. In a muted, nonchalant way the picture manages to achieve a certain lackadaisical charm, but its insights are rather obvious and its construction too arbitrary to justify the contrivances.
In the recent spate of superb Iranian films, “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine” is a comparatively meek entry. On its own modest terms it’s an interesting effort, but not a particularly compelling one.