Moonlight Matinee 

Iranian Film Society's drama Under the Moonlight sneaks up on social issues.

Ever since Abbas Kiarostami's films began popping up at American fests in the '90s, films from Iran have proved popular with discerning audiences eager for a peek into a complicated nation where filmmakers are obliged to use allegory and metaphor to comment on touchy political and religious issues.

One such oblique social commentary is Under the Moonlight, a 2001 drama written and directed by Reza Mir-Karimi. It looks at contemporary Iranian social problems through the eyes of a young Islamic seminarian named Seyed Hasan Ahmadi (played by nonactor Hossein Parastar). In the manner of fellow Iranian directors Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, Tahmineh Milani, and the Makhmalbafs (father Mohsen and daughter Samira), Mir-Karimi lets the quiet, introspective, provincial student register his own subdued dismay at the discrepancy between religious teaching and real life. Hasan's predicament begins when, after preparing for graduation by carefully buying a new robe and turban, his precious bundle is stolen from him on the subway by a young thief. Hasan tracks and confronts the kid, but refuses to deal harshly with him. Instead, his search for the missing vestments leads him to a homeless encampment under a bridge, where his eyes are opened to another side of Tehran, one he had never considered -- and the accompanying profound doubts about the clerical mindset.

Under the Moonlight, which debuted at the Semaine de la Critique at Cannes in 2001, opens Friday at Renaissance Rialto's Oaks Theatre in North Berkeley for a one-week engagement. It's distributed by the Iranian Film Society, a Hayward-based releasing company run by Amir Kalantari. The six-year-old firm has been distributing nine or ten Iranian films a year in North America, including director Mir-Karimi's previous film, The Child and the Soldier. The Iranian Film Society (www.irfilms.com) has titles playing in Beverly Hills and Irvine, and the Bay Area also boasts a large and active Iranian community, but for all that, Kalantari claims it's been difficult for him to gain a foothold in the East Bay. He has screened films at the Fine Arts in Berkeley and a few one-night stands at the Oaks, but now says his biggest venues locally are in Cupertino and San Jose. That may change, however. "I enjoy working with Allen Michaan," says Kalantari of his incipient relationship with the Renaissance Rialto owner. "If [Under the Moonlight] does well, we may go to the Oaks once a month. We don't have a center for Iranian films the way the Naz 8 in Fremont is for Indian films, but we're working on it."

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