No matter how far we try to go, one can never fully outrun their responsibilities, their life, or the consequences of their behaviour. From an award winning script co-penned by Mohsen Gharaie and Mohammed Davoudi, Castle of Dreams (Ghasre Shirin/ قصر شیرین) is Mirkarimi’s 11th directorial effort and takes viewers on a delicate and emotionally charged exploration of fatherhood in the face of one’s own selfishness.
Jalal (Hamed Behdad) is a gruff and ambivalent man. Released from prison and returning to a life he seems determined to have left behind, we first meet him in his ex-wife’s village looking utterly morose and disgruntled as his sister-in-law Nasrin (Azadeh Nobahar) weeps over thoughts of her terminally ill sister Shirin. In her sister’s absence Nasrin has been taking care of Shirin and Jalal’s two children and the affection she has for them is so clear that we can’t help but be left feeling that we want them to stay with her as much as she does.
Jalal, hellbent on avoiding the responsibilities that his offspring come with, attempts to just take his and Shirin’s old SUV and drive away. Sadly for him, and Nasrin, he is quickly thwarted by Nasrin’s husband and before we know it Jalal has the car plus two young kids in tow. On the back of false promises to visit their dying mother, Jalal reluctantly takes guardianship.
Jalal’s children Ali and Sara (played by Yuna Tadayyon and Niousha Alipour respectively) are the little rays of sunshine that pierce through the dark heart of this film. Sara, quite literally too cute for words, effortlessly spreads an infectious joy throughout the family’s road journey, providing much needed humour in the face of Jalal’s bleak personality and their worsening family situation with her sheer optimism and general lack of understanding.
In contrast, Ali is stoic and much more clued-in to the reality they are facing. Despite his young age, Ali appears a confident parental figure for Sara; applying lotion for her, reassuring her every time she worries, and shielding her from the moments no child her age should have to see. Knowing he doesn’t have a choice, Ali approaches this new adventure with a wariness that hints at a life of acute disappointment where his father is concerned. Showing a level of maturity that is rare for a child of his age, Ali offers his father a unique pillar to lean against as he clumsily crashes back into fatherhood.
As more of his past begins to unfold, there is little to no room for sympathy for Jalal. Behdad’s portrayal of his character is so brilliantly antagonistic that the audience can’t help but dislike him; Jalal’s mere presence on the screen feels oppressive and is reflected in his personality. Through emotionally aggressive interactions with his girlfriend Najmeh and physically aggressive moments with his brothers-in-law, Mirkarimi provides a window into the kind of selfish misogyny that is rarely seen in Hollywood films; gritty, often subtle, and all too authentic.
After a couple of attempts to leave Sara and Ali behind and move on, Jalal gradually begins to accept the cards he has been dealt and slowly shows a softer, more attentive side towards his children. Ultimately it didn’t feel like enough to justify redemption of his character.
Even with its open-ended, totally unsatisfying ending, Castle of Dreams makes a powerful impression. Deeply rooted in a culture that many Western viewers will struggle to understand, Mirkarimi and his film reminds viewers that while wanting to escape from one’s problems is completely natural, running will only get you so far. Eventually, despite our best efforts, our fears and problems will always come to collect.
Castle of Dreams was screened as part of the 9th Iranian Film Festival Australia.