Those who entered the March 2 screening of the legendary 1976 Iranian film “Chess of the Wind” at the John & Geraldine Lilley Museum of Art were surprised to see traditional seating replaced by an ornate arrangement of Persian rugs and pillows .
Ushered into the museum’s north wing, the students slowly but resolutely huddled on the woolen textile, in front of the temporary scaffolding where the laptop-connected projector ran above them. Some attendees were laid back, others leaned forward, and most simply sat as upright as comfortably possible in the floor seats.
In many ways, the unconventional setup perfectly complemented the film they were about to watch: puzzling in its very existence, yet triumphant in its making.
“Wind Chess”which stars Fakhri Khorvash, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz and Shohreh Aghdashloo, is a passionate, golden hour-infused meditation on the material obsession and emotional claustrophobia inherent in royal aristocracy.
Despite its elaborate production values and lavish construction, the pre-revolution film has a story steeped in turmoil and subverted expectations.
Weighed down by unfavorable press and a notoriously sabotaged screening at the 1976 Tehran International Festival, debut director Mohammad Reza Aslani failed to mount the meagerest of theatrical releases for the picture. In the space of three years, there has been a grand total of three public screenings of the 100 Minute Domestic Drama.
An outright ban on the film in its country of origin following the Revolution of 1978-79 threatened to forever isolate Aslani’s fearless political criticism from the general public.
Next to a lucky find of a 35mm print of the film in Tehran in 2014, a monumental 4K restoration under the direction of American director Martin Scorsese and a highly publicized theatrical release reissue in 2021, “Chess of the Wind” was exhibited.
The film is now enjoyed in more corners of the world than ever before imagined, including now, at a university art museum in Reno, Nevada.
The free screening was organized by the UNR Department of English, but the success of the event can be credited to English professor Pardis Dabashi.
Professor Dabashi’s efforts to bring the film to Reno began in late 2021. Preparing for the spring semester, she contacted a representative of famed arthouse film distributor Janus Films in a reluctant attempt to get a copy of the treasured masterpiece to present to students in his Global Cinema course.
The email alone would lead to something much more substantial. Along with Brian Belovarac at Janus Films and Vivian Zavataro, director and curator of the Lilley Museum of Art, Dabashi has secured herself and college a place in the film’s ambitious comeback story.
In addition to organizing and promoting the event for more than two months, the professor also presented a 10-minute introduction to the project. Standing in front of the huddled group of students, she balanced her detailed explanation of the film’s story and themes with light-hearted remarks regarding the occasion.
“I play the film on my laptop. I tried turning everything off, but hopefully not getting a FaceTime from my parents in the middle of the screening,” Dabashi joked.
Nonetheless, in an evening destined for surprise, the ancestry and quality of the central attraction itself came as a shock.
As an aesthetic object, “Chess of the Wind” is severed in its influences. The placement of the royal setting in the early parts of the film evokes the solemn decadence of late Italian neorealism. The actions of the characters are framed by the mysterious, minimalist power of directors like Robert Bresson. The intense finale of the film is full of the dark suspense of the American noir.
Beyond copying his contemporaries, Aslani was determined to conceptualize a cinematic identity that intertwined the socio-political upheaval of Iran with the larger context of disruption of several international film movements.
The students were delighted to spend time in this deeply deteriorated, but quietly inspired royal wasteland, where a gossip line from a servant lingers in the annals of the palace until it becomes a corrupt nobleman’s death sentence.
More importantly, it was clear that Aslani’s mission to access deeper emotional and visual meaning rather than traditional politically focused filmmaking transcended the boundaries of time and language for young audiences.
Although there was no official discussion after the screening, the students immediately got up from the floor at the end of the film and gathered in groups inside the limited venue to exchange their thoughts.
Jefrin Jojan, University of Nevada Senate Associate Student for the College of Engineering and a self-proclaimed “local movie buff,” described the film as a mix between two popular modern imports from South Korea: 2019 “Parasite” and 2016 “The servant”.
Carolyn Lemon, a sophomore at UNR, explained that while she anticipated a more “obvious” withdrawal of Iran’s Shah government, the substitution of political themes for psychological issues made for a resonant viewing experience.
“It was a lot more about the characters…and how their motivations played a role [in their actions]“, explained Lemon.
In an interview after the screening, Dabashi revealed her admiration for “Chess of the Wind”, which she described as “a hidden gem” and a “beautiful and deeply intelligent” film.
“The fact that he’s been hiding for so long…” Dabashi trailed off, at a loss for words.
Dabashi, who is of Iranian descent, has taught and written extensively on films in the Persian film canon. The revelation of the film visibly marked a moment of realignment in his years of personal study.
To that end, there was a unanimous consensus among students for the continuation of international film screenings on campus, particularly after the strong attendance of “Chess of the Wind”.
“I think it’s interesting, and UNR should promote it more,” Lemon said before complimenting the culturally iconic screening atmosphere. “[The seating] definitely added something.
Dabashi’s enthusiasm for future events was evident in the immediate amount of thought she had about how to approach a series of global cinema screenings.
“I would love to start with different kinds of national cinemas,” she said, citing Iran and Japan as two countries with cinematic fame.
She explained that she would then “diversify” by showing films revolving around specific themes while maintaining international criteria.
Jojan expressed his support for this perspective. He argued that the university’s English department should request more resources for larger rooms and hold a discussion after the viewing period.
“I enjoyed it,” he explained, referring to the whole event at hand. “It was a new experience for me.”
In any case, the tapestry of world cinema felt demonstrably more luxurious and renewed in Reno with the arrival of this resurrected classic.
Wyatt Layland can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.