Cinema has had its share of wholesome fathers - ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962) and ‘The Lion King’ (1994) are but two classic movies about the good father and the example he sets his children - but from ‘East of Eden’ (1955) through to ‘Fences’ (2016) and ‘Custody’ (2018), the most memorable movie fathers have tended to be deeply flawed. Often, movie fathers are simple, recognisably human individuals with their own selfish and impulsive desires, sometimes unwittingly impacting a new generation with their actions.
In ‘Castle of Dreams’, Reza Mirkarimi’s heartbreaking new drama, Jalal (a tightly-wound Hamed Behdad) arrives at the village of his former wife, from whom he has been separated for years, to pick up her old SUV. He is a sullen, stubborn, chain-smoking jerk. His wife is in ICU on life support, but he hasn’t even been to see her, and he is dismissive of his kindly sister-in-law, Nasrin, who has been taking care of the couple’s small children, Sara and Ali. Jalal is only focused on his wife’s car, with a buyer already lined up - his children aren’t even an afterthought. However, Nasrin’s husband (against his wife’s protests) is determined to make him take the kids with him. Jalal is eventually forced to agree, but arranges to dump them with another aunt.
Sara (an amazing performance from five-year old Nioosha Alipour) has a pet turtle named Water Colour and a sunny outlook that belies the grim state of her family. She’s been told nice things about her father by her mother and is looking forward to seeing the castle she thinks that he lives in. Her brother Ali (an equally impressive Youna Tadayyon) is barely older but much wiser to the situation, and he watches his shady dad with a degree of pessimism and knowing eyes.
The three of them drive through some picturesque scenery (captured beautifully by director of photography Morteza Hodaei), including the snow-capped mountains of Iran. Meanwhile, the film grows more desperately poignant as the children’s natural attempts to bond with their mysterious father are coldly rebuked. Jalal picks up his girlfriend Najmeh (Zhila Shahi), who is initially presented as a materialistic gold-digger, enthusiastic about the new car and eager to be rid of Jalal’s kids and their turtle. But Jalal’s casually dismissive and unkind treatment of her, as well as her growing maternal concern for the adorable children, makes her an increasingly sympathetic figure.
Forgoing expository dialogue for exquisitely controlled pacing, screenwriters Mohammad Davoudi and Mohsen Gharaie allow the man’s character and history to reveal itself over the course of events.
Whether the father cares for his children is an open question, at least until the climactic scene, but Hamed Behdad’s implacable aura seems designed to distil missing years of masculinity into a few hours. For much of the running time of ‘Castle of Dreams’, Jalal is a brute cut from the same cloth as Zampano in Federico Fellini’s ‘La Strada’, who converts his sentimentality into selfishness and vile behaviour, and you wonder if Jalal will meet the same lonely end. Slowly, we see him open up, like when he hesitates after Sara tells him she enjoys the smell of petrol (Jalal, who has an affinity with cars, does too). His simmering emotions erupt during heated conflicts with Najmeh as well as his wife’s former employer, greenhouse owner Behrouz (Akbar Aein). Forgoing expository dialogue for exquisitely controlled pacing, screenwriters Mohammad Davoudi and Mohsen Gharaie allow the man’s character and history to reveal itself over the course of events.
‘Castle of Dreams’ could easily be described as a tearjerker, but there is nothing mawkish about it. Mirkarimi (who also produced and edited) has delicately crafted a film about people trapped by their pasts, by their present, and by each other. It’s a detailed, emotional snapshot of a broken family struggling for genuine connection.