You'll be hard pressed to find a more un-Hollywood movie released this year than the Iranian film Secret Ballot. Writer/director Babak Payami is a fan of both the long shot and the long take, and while the movie's visuals are often striking, the tortoise-like pacing can be quite exhausting. Payami is a clever and charming enough filmmaker to keep the viewer involved, but frustration can easily set in when you realize that the director probably could have cut many of the scenes in half and not lost a single thing. That being said, Secret Ballot is still a film so earnest and well intentioned, one can't help but feel a bit guilty criticizing it.
The setting is an island off the coast of Iran, which is experiencing its first free election. The Iranian government is so intent on its citizens voting that they actually send an election agent, ballot box in hand, to the various communities on the island to collect votes. This agent (Nassim Abdi), much to the surprise of the soldier (Cyrus Ab) who is assigned to drive the ballot box and the agent around the island, is a woman. These two people, who will spend an adventurous day together, are proverbial polar opposites.
The agent and soldier travel from one group of voters to the next, and their differences quickly (well, in this film, nothing is too quick) rise to the surface. The agent represents the voice of the new, more liberal Iran, while the soldier is a symbol of the conservative past. As they encounter various situations and people on the desert island, each is forced to re-examine his or her own ideals.
Despite its content, Secret Ballot doesn't feel like a political movie. The exchanges between the agent and soldier are usually very light and occasionally comical. There's something so inoffensive about its outlook, and so objective in its point of view, that the film is almost as maddening as it is admirable. To be fair, Payami does take a stance, no matter how subtle, on some issues, most notably the tradition of gender roles and the continued subservience of women in Iranian life -- a stark contrast to the forward-thinking progress made in other aspects of the culture.
The film's compositions are exquisite, taking full advantage of open space and allowing the characters to move comfortably within the frame. The actors are all non-professionals and perform well enough in mainly one-dimensional roles. This film is really a showcase for the director and, for the most part, Payami proves up to the task. If nothing else, he certainly stamps a distinct imprint on the movie, although taking some editorial advice in the future might be to his benefit.
Secret Ballot is a well-made film, and a nice alternative for American moviegoers seeking a change of pace. It may not be the most immediate or attention-grabbing work, but there's certainly something satisfying in its thoughtfulness. In a summer bloated with cinematic excess, that alone is a refreshing reward.
Aka Raye makhfi.