Art and Experience: Iranian director Hadi Mohaghegh follows up ‘Bardou’ with an understated mediation on grief and duty starring Yadolah Shadmani.

Crippling despair wears down a lonely 60something man living in an isolated and arid Iranian village in Hadi Mohaghegh’s sophomore feature, Immortal, a richly photographed and quietly moving mediation on loss and guilt. Told almost entirely through its images and deliberately paced, Mohaghegh continues Iranian cinema’s tradition of doing more with less, ultimately crafting a moving and compelling drama that never strains to tell its story. Following its world premiere in the New Currents section at Busan, Immortal should garner plenty of interest from broad spectrum film festivals globally.

Immortal shares some of the narrative elements found in the director’s first film, Bardou, which pivoted on a teenaged boy trying to care for his sick mother. Here, Ebrahim (Meysam Farhomand), is tasked with taking care of his suicidal grandfather Ayaz (Yadolah Shadmani) after his uncle and Ayaz’s son Ardeshir can’t take it anymore and leaves town. There’s not much to the town though; the nearest neighbors—and doctors—are miles away, as is Ebrahim’s work. The landscape is rocky and dusty, a barren golden brown with the wreckage of a bus the only real landmark. But Ebrahim toughs it out, even with Ayaz trying time after time to end his own life. It gets even more difficult when the old man collapses one day and can no longer walk. Now bedridden, Ebrahim is stuck nursing him full time as he literally wastes away until he gets some help from his new bride Narges (Fatemeh Bahador) at her mother’s suggestion. A girl like Narges could be the ticket to forcing Ayaz to rethink his self-destruction.

The bare bones plot is simply the framework that writer-director Mohaghegh hangs his examination of grief on. Nearly silent and without a score (and only occasional incidental singing), Immortal is an exemplar of show-not-tell storytelling. Mohaghegh peppers the action with hints about what is behind Ayaz’s grief without ever belaboring the point, and when the pieces finally fall into place—the bus wreckage is there for a reason—most viewers will have guessed what tragedy is eating away at him. Which doesn’t mean the road to finding out for sure is any less emotional or visually arresting. Cinematographer Rozbeh Raiga uses plenty of deep focus long shots and wide angles to contextualize Ayaz in his solitary grief, and otherwise prefers elegant, often color splashed images to let the story unfold organically.

Shadmani delivers an incredibly nuanced performance considering he spends most of his time silent and prone on the floor, and makes Ayaz’s pain palpable. The few times he does speak it’s to plead with his nephew to not take him away from his home, and it’s heartbreaking. Ebrahim and Ardeshir’s frustration is understandable, but so is Ayaz’s wish to atone for his fatal crime. The younger Farhomand matches Shadmani scene for scene, encapsulating the mindset of a young man trapped by obligation and a sense of loyalty but way out of his depth.

Grim as Immortal may sound, it’s not devoid of some levity. The best of those moments are Ayaz’s attempt to throw himself into a canyon by spooking the horse he’s tied to—which simply won’t spook—and Ebrahim’s verbal spanking by a local healer, Toulou Khan. When Khan declares the bus wreck is the root of Ayaz’s pain, Ebrahim blurts out a lippy “I already knew that,” Which gets him a stern talking to. It hardly makes the film a laugh riot, but the gently humorous moments of absurdity lend it a bittersweet flavor that make the drama all the more affecting.

Production company: Majid Barzegar Productions

Cast: Yadolah Shadmani, Meysam Farhomand, Fatemeh Bahador, Parisa Viseli, Mahyar Abravan, Tolo Jahanbazi

Director: Hadi Mohaghegh

Screenwriter: Hadi Mohaghegh

Producer: Reza Mohaghegh, Majid Barzegar

Director of photography: Rozbeh Raiga

Production designer: Hossein Ghezelbash

Costume designer: Hossein Ghezelbash

Editor: Majid Barzegar

World sales: Taat Films

No rating, 94 minutes