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Hit the Road is a blissful debut from Panah Panahi

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Hit the Road screener provided by Rialto Distribution

Hit the Road brilliantly captures the heartache of separation and our ability to cope with its impact”

Sometimes a car can act as a space for therapy, or a deeper catharsis like in Drive my Car (2021), while other times it can serve as a space for familial bonding as in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Some of the best moments one can have tend to happen in the confines of a car, and no truer is that than when it’s a road trip — especially one with your family. There’s a joy in knowing you’re all heading to the same destination, and you savour the quiet moments of cruising while filling the moments of restlessness with bickering and singing.

Panah Panahi’s (son of legendary Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi) debut feature, Hit the Road (2021), captures these moments with a precision and verisimilitude that sits in line with the greatest road movies to come out of the region (his father’s 2015 film Taxi comes to mind), but also in a way that is wholly his own.

Set in car for its majority (a prominent trope used in Iranian and Middle Eastern cinema), Hit the Road follows a family of four as they journey towards Iran’s border in hopes of smuggling their son Farid (Amin Simiar) out of the country. What he has done or who he’s upset, to warrant such drastic measures, is unclear, but it’s a decision that his cast-wearing father (Hassan Madjooni) and trying-to-keep-it-together mother (Pantea Panahiha) aren’t thrilled about. The only member of the family that is seemingly having a good time is Farid’s younger (and unaware) brother (Rayan Sarlak).

Their journey leads them through the backwater outskirts of the country where they stop and hide their mobile phones at various locations as they try to keep a low profile. At one point they collect sheepskin for their son’s journey into the great beyond as part of the process of smuggling him out. This is all manageable for the family, but perhaps the most difficult thing to hide is Farid’s real reason for needing to leave and their sentiment towards the matter — at least from their boisterous youngest child.

(from left) actors Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha and Rayan Sarlak in Hit the Road

(from left) actors Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha and Rayan Sarlak in Hit the Road

This obstacle sets the film up as a heartfelt journey of longing, one that is at once familiar and different from an spectator point of view. Panahi asks questions of his characters —namely how resilient they’re willing to be— and tests their ability to cope with the hard truth that they may never see their son again. They’re trying concerns, but Panahi’s ensemble drives home the impact of his themes of family drama and separation with a confidence and belief in the directing-debutants vision.

Actors Panahiha, Madjooni, and Sarlak are the gems that keep shining as they play off of each other with an ease and honesty that is contagious and relatable. The eight year old especially stands out as the light of the film, injecting a comforting energy into an otherwise sombre situation. He keeps the other characters on their toes and always throws in a random line or observation to break the tension brewing beneath the masquerade of togetherness that the troupe try and maintain. His presence is another staple of the films from the region where a child serves to counterbalance the more serious tone with a playfulness.

By contrast, Simiar is understandably much more distant as Farid, but Panahi deliberately creates this distance through his visual style, where he pulls away from the characters until they’re specks in the distance of the frame — allowing the audience to also experience the pull-at-your-heartstrings separation and detachment that Farid’s family, and countless other families from the region, experience. It’s really a testament to Panahi and his ability to seamlessly blend the heaviness with the humour of the film in a way that allows his characters to try to deflect from the reality of their more serious situation until they can’t.

Unlike his acclaimed father before him, Panah Panahi isn’t as explicit in his criticisms of Iran’s political situation in Hit the Road. Rather than tackling a lot of the sensitive issues from the region head on, he opts to steer away from trouble, taking his characters with him in the process. In this way, Hit the Road is as much about family dynamics and the very real experience of seeing a child go out into the world alone as it is about the smuggling of one’s child under extraordinary circumstances. Panahi captures both aspects incredibly, and by the film’s close, leaves you emotionally stranded, far from the road, and with no sense of what may await.

Hit the Road opens nationally from the 25th of August, 2022. 

Contributors

Arnel Duracak

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