In 2010, Jafar Panahi was banned by the Iranian government from making movies for 20 years, a sentence that has only emboldened him to make movies without the authorities finding out about it.
2011’s cheekily titled “This is Not A Film” was filmed entirely in Panahi’s apartment, a documentary that shows Panahi under house arrest, reckoning with his punishment as well as making plans for another film. “Taxi” took the show on the road. Panahi shot entirely inside his car as he drove the streets of Tehran pretending to be a cab driver, interacting with (fictional) locals to present a portrait of modern Iran.
“3 Faces,” which has its Madison premiere on Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is his boldest experiment yet. Again, Panahi shoots a lot of footage in his car, but also heads out to a rural Iranian village, perhaps far from the eyes of government censors, to shoot much of the action.
“3 Faces” opens with disturbing cell phone footage of a young Iranian woman, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei). Saying that she will commit suicide because her repressive family won’t let her pursue her dreams of becoming an actress, Marziyeh appears to go through with the act.
The cell phone footage somehow finds its way into the hands of a well-known Iranian actress (Behnaz Jafari, playing a version of herself). Concerned about the girl, she enlists Panahi (playing a version of himself) to drive to the countryside to see if they can find the girl.
The trip is in many ways a time travel journey back to less enlightened times, and the passersby Panahi and Jafari run into let their lives be run by superstition and folk tales. In one amusing scene, they come across an old woman who has dug her own grave and now lies in it, waiting to die. She has a lamp with her to scare off snakes at night.
Less amusing are the restrictive burdens placed on women and girls in these rural towns. In “3 Faces,” Panahi fully turns the camera away from himself and his own troubles, instead capturing the broader struggles of life under a patriarchy. Panahi views these townspeople (this is the region he grew up in, and left behind) with a mix of fondness and frustration.
The mystery of what happened to Marziyeh is resolved about halfway through “3 Faces,” leaving Panahi free to pursue all kinds of digressions and allusions, leading to an elliptical, final long take in which past and present seem to collide. Knowing the limitations imposed by the government on Panahi helps the viewer understand how brave he is to make “3 Faces,” but in some ways as a filmmaker, he’s never seemed freer.