Spanning a whopping four decades and (the camerawork of) three generations, Silent House packs a dramatic punch that belies its rather innocuous title. At the centre of the tale is one upper-middle-class family in Tehran that went from riches to, if not rags, being left with a once-grand, now Grey Gardens-esque, mansion formerly owned by the fourth wife of the Shah of Iran. (That would be Reza Shah, who ruled from 1925-1941.) And at the centre of the filmmaking – and also their own current real-life drama, having been banned from leaving Iran to attend the IDFA premiere – are a pair of siblings, sister and brother Farnaz Jurabchian and Mohammadreza Jurabchian, who happen to be the third generation taking up residence on one floor of this «silent house.»
That said, to call the house «silent» is a bit of a ruse. Indeed, as the co-directors deftly combine personal photos and home movies with historical footage and present-day interviews, a talking picture emerges loud and clear. And the old line, «if these walls could talk», is made viscerally concrete – as much of the film is actually shot from the house’s POV. Even more unexpectedly, with the doc’s tightly composed (and multiple establishing) shots, and an evocative string-based score, Silent House feels as cinematic – and theatrical – as any of Asghar Farhadi’s narrative features. (And is actually much closer in spirit to Farhadi’s insular and controlled, highly specific world-building than to, say, the recent looser – and more overtly political – documentary work of Jafar Panâhi.)
Of course, the plot will thicken, and complications inevitably ensue – mostly because Iran is a complicated country that constantly defies Western preconceptions. For example, the Supreme Leader enforces a patriarchal society, yet the grandmother and mother (both longtime widows) wear metaphorical pants in this house. In fact, the filmmakers’ heavily devout mom, an entrepreneurial businesswoman (who rented the house to movie studios!) and would-be politician, could practically be called a feminist. One who was nevertheless out on the streets in the late 70s, rallying hard in support of the Islamic Revolution, a battle won with unintended consequences (including forcing her own father into bankruptcy, compelled to buy back his beloved house from the confiscating authorities). As for her own mother – who loathed that father, her husband, and is not particularly religious – she is patriarchal to the core. For once, that headstrong daughter began transgressing too many gender red lines, and the co-directors grandma chose her wayward son to be in charge of the house her husband bought. (If not built, obviously, purchasing it directly from its near-royal owner, «Queen» Esmat, with whom he seems to have been a bit too infatuated. Not only did the Jurabchians’ grandpa allow her to remain in the house for a year after the family had moved in, but he also paid her eventual moving costs.) Then again, could this all just have been some sort of sordid feminist power play? After all, it was easier for the grandmother to hold sway over her wayward son than to tower above her ambitious and domineering daughter. Or so it initially seemed.
the old line, «if these walls could talk», is made viscerally concrete
For Hossein is just one of the six siblings – along with the eldest brother Mohammad – that provide an adroit counterpoint to the two matriarchs at the centre of the twisting saga. The affable Hossein survived being drafted into the Iran-Iraq War – only to return shellshocked and deceitful, never to be the same man again. This could also be said of party boy Mohammad, who headed for the west around the time of the Revolution, and remained abroad for 40 years. Only to finally come back utterly despondent, a «free» man caught between countries without a home. Luckily, he had a cinematically-inclined niece and nephew to capture his clan’s nonstop soap opera – its ups and downs, gleeful celebrations and tragic ends. All with abundant love in a now empty, eternally silent house.