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'Hit the Road' is a film of yearning and isolation

Kino Lorber

Hit the Road is the title of a new film from Iran about a family on a road trip. But KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film at CU Denver, says this is not It Happened One Night or Thelma and Louise.

Panah Panahi, the director of Hit the Road, is the son of Jafar Panahi, the remarkable and courageous director officially banned from making films in Iran. The son’s new movie is about a family helping their adult son to escape from the country, and it makes you wonder if Panah Panahi is heading for a ban also. I certainly don’t know the minds of Iranian government censors, but I’d bet that they are not fans of films like Hit the Road.

A father sleeps in the back seat of a car; a mother in front. The father has a cast on his leg with a piano keyboard drawn on it, and the little son pretends to play the same delicate notes that open the film.

But it’s the persistence of enormous empty space that gets to you. There’s so much room; Hit the Road invites vision to the far horizon. The film yearns for all this openness to be developed. That’s not about real estate, building malls and office buildings. It’s about mind and spirit and humanity. The grown son has to run away from Iran. His parents hocked their home to raise bail, and you never know why. The film leaves you thinking about both Iran and all of human life, and the profound conflict of beauty with the deep pain of love.

The older son, the driver, wears the rimless glasses that stereotype politically dissident intellectuals in about a thousand movies. For much of the picture, the family drives through an enormous arid landscape that’s beautiful in its stark way like areas of Colorado’s Western slope, where the dry barren land is sculpted by wind and harsh sun.

Kino Lorber

In this expanse, these four people are crammed into an SUV. The sight of people penned in and separated from the magnificence of the world is no accident. Hit the Road is about people cut off from the world by their country. The mother awakens for a moment to ask, “Where are we?” The little boy raises his head and says bluntly, “We’re dead.”

There’s metaphorical truth to that smart alecky answer, and the movie isn’t always so tender as the opening suggests. The family is playful but rough and insistent with the boy. They force him to give up his phone, which feels rough and unjust — until you realize that they fear being traced, and their fear puts them on edge.

Like a lot of Iranian films, Hit the Road watches how life affects children. The kid, played by a lively and natural Rayan Sarlak, is irrepressible. He climbs around the car, draws on the windows with crayon and chides his parents and big brother with a semi-foul mouth. He doesn’t know why the family is on this road trip. He won’t be serious, and that’s the point.

It’s Panah Panahi’s picture of Iran: an incapacitated father, a mother worried about losing her son and whether their car is being followed, a grown son in trouble and a child who won’t be stifled. All these jumbled situations and feelings inside the car, while the landscape is full of possibility. The boy with his mother sees frogs, a lion’s head, pistachio nuts and a Sphinx in the curls and folds of the dry hills. And a cake. Imagination is alive and well, but cooped up in this car and fearful.

But not glum. In the car, all but the driver dance to music on the radio — the mother lip-syncing and dancing with her arms and hands, the boy undulating his hips in the back seat, the father twirling the ears of the family dog.

The car has a minor collision with a bike racer. As they give the man a ride, he talks about his hero — the disgraced American racer Lance Armstrong. The father points out Armstrong’s cheating; the racer just grumbles “fake news.” Iran and America are alike in some ways.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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