Discussing Jafar Panahi’s Iranian drama without revealing the major gearshift halfway through can be difficult, but the turning point is so extraordinary, so unexpected, that it would be shame to spoil it here.
The Mirror starts off normally enough – with a first-grader named Mina (Mina Mohammad-Khani) standing outside the school gates with a cast around her arm, nervously waiting for her mother to pick her up. When she fails to show, the little girl impatiently decides to head home by herself, thus beginning her long and turbulent journey through the busy streets of Tehran. Her voyage begins on foot, then briefly on motorbike, and eventually on bus; where she’s inevitably led astray. At this moment, you would probably expect the rest of the plot to follow our young heroine as she attempts to find her way home and, in some respects, you’d be right in thinking that – but you’d be mistaken if you thought it was all that simple.
Since the release of Abbas Kiarostami’s remarkable Close-up in 1990, Iranian cinema has developed a reputation for blurring the lines between documentary and fiction – as demonstrated in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence and Samira Makhmalbaf’s (Mohsen’s daughter) The Apple. Panahi continues on a similar thread with this, his second feature, which initially disguises itself as a sweet child-focused drama akin to his debut The White Balloon, but ends as an examination into the art of storytelling and the illusory qualities of the cinematic form and the .
Much of the success of this incredible film lies in the hands of the miniature actress at the centre of this story. In what is her first and only screen appearance, Mohammad-Khani shows complete conviction in front of the camera, and despite her obvious inexperience, she manages to convey a beautiful softness in her innocence and a rebellious fierceness in her petulance. Her naturalistic performance is essential in giving the first half its authenticity, and this is only amplified during the later stages of the narrative.
Controversy never strains far from Panahi’s work. As our heroine navigates her way around the bustling capital, conversations that are critical of contemporary Iranian values can be overheard. Of course, the director’s politics has not always been welcomed by the authorities, and since 2011, he has been put under house arrest where he is officially prohibited from making movies. Panahi has defiantly continued to make films, however, and even with the restrictions imposed on him, he has proven himself to be one of the most unique voices in cinema today.