Movie Review: ‘Persian Lessons’

John Thomas

The truck filled with captives, huddled in the back, is bumping and swaying down a rutted road to a remote rural location. Little do the prisoners know that they are not heading toward a new prison but to their death.

Two of the young men crash into one another as the truck pitches to one side. One asks the other if he has anything to eat – he hasn’t eaten in days and is starving. Gilles (Nahuel Pérez) replies that he only has a sandwich for himself and won’t share. For the sandwich, the man offers Gilles a rare book he had stolen from his former Persian employers. They agree to the exchange.

Opening the book, Gilles sees it is dedicated to Reza and asks who is Reza? Devouring his food, the young man says that Reza is the son of the wealthy family for whom he once worked.

Reaching the remote destination, the truck stops and the detainees are unloaded and lined up at the edge of a cliff – the soldiers draw their weapons. Anticipating what is to take place, Gilles falls to the ground screaming that he is Persian. The soldiers don’t believe him, but two of them are curious.

The camp deputy commandant has offered a reward for anyone bringing him a Persian. They are convinced he is real after seeing the inscription “for Reza” in the book Gilles has handed them as evidence. Gilles/Reza is hustled off to the deputy commandant’s office as the other captives, to the sound of gunfire, fall to the ground.

Deputy Commandant Koch (Lars Eidinger) is skeptical at first but is willing to give Reza a try. Koch is a trained chef and wants to join his brother who had fled to Persia at the beginning of the war. He hopes to open a restaurant with him in Tehran, but first he needs to speak the language.

After a day laboring in the kitchen, Reza enters Koch’s office where he’s told the ground rules. Koch wants to learn four Persian words each day – that times two years (the duration of the war) would give him a vocabulary of 2,000 words – enough to speak fluent Persian. Not knowing any Persian words, Reza creates them in his head as he scrubs pots and pans in the kitchen.

In a surprise move, Koch presents Reza with a list of 40 words he wants translated. The female assistant Koch engaged to record incoming and outgoing prisoners including those who die on the way to the camp is reassigned. He doesn’t like her messy ledger and sloppy bookkeeping so replaces her with Reza.

Sitting at his new desk with the 40 word list in front of him, Reza decides to use the ledger as a mnemonic to invent the new “Persian” words based on sections of the names on the list. The ploy is successful – everyone is satisfied. New words from old names continue to pass from Reza’s desk to Koch’s as the days of war slowly grind to a halt.

Koch’s side has lost the conflict but before the “former enemy,” arrives he orders all prisoner records to be destroyed. With Reza in tow, Koch escapes the camp, tosses his military topcoat revealing civilian clothes beneath and heads into the forest on his way to Tehran. He thanks Reza for his help. Fashionably dressed and with an audacious look on his face he’s ready to meet the suspicious immigration officers waiting for him at the Persian border.

Directed by Vadim Perelman (Credits: House of Sand and Fog, Missing), “Persian Lessons” runs 127 minutes and is a “see” for a creative version of and age-old story based on real characters. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

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