Cakes, Frogs and Pistachios: Hit the Road is a Wondrous Ride to Remember

Hit the Road (2021)

“It’s like zen. It calms you down.”

Farid (Amin Simiar), a bespectacled young man, talks to his mother (Pantea Panahiha) about his favourite film 2001: A Space Odyssey, while sharing a cigarette with her. The two of them, along with Farid’s father Khusro (Hassan Majdooni), younger brother (Rayan Sarlak), and the ailing family dog Jessy, are on a road trip in Panah Panahi’s debut film, Hit the Road. Although , the trip is not a fun family outing. Farid, like many young men in Iran, is attempting to cross the border into Turkey, in pursuit of a life free of violence, conflict, and fear. When they make a quick stop at a roadside stall, the mother and son sit against a mud wall, smoking. “What’s the world’s best movie for you?” she asks her son. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he says “…There is no war in it. In the end, the hero is alone in a spaceship. He goes deep into a black hole. He goes deeper and deeper. Crossing the limits of time and space.”

As the family’s SUV drives down and around northwestern Iran’s rugged deserts and sudden green valleys, there is an otherworldly, magical realism to the tale that unfolds. The car in modern Iranian cinema, has often been a liminal intersection of the home and the world; at once safe and cocooned, and vulnerable and risky. In Taxi (2015), Jafar Panahi (who is Panah Panahi’s father and Hit the Road’s producer), pretends to be a taxi driver and films his conversations with his passengers. More recently, in 3 Faces (2018), Panahi Sr is joined by Iranian actor Behnaz Jafari and, together, they drive his SUV to track down a young girl from a viral video clip. For making films that are siahnamayi—painting a “dark image” of Iran—Jafar Panahi is not just banned from traveling outside the country but also prohibited from making any films. The SUV in Hit the Road, becomes somewhat of a magical chariot that promises an ascent into a land that lies beyond the reach of censorship and force. Panah Panahi, a formidable filmmaker in his own right, takes the motifs founded by his cinematic forefathers and weaves them into a tale that is so endearing that you almost forget the immense pain and tragedy that underlines the situation. “Looks like pistachios!”, “And there, a cake!”, “And there, like frogs!”, “A lion’s head”—the young boy and his mother point out shapes emerging from the rugged mountains in the distance. As the car moves on, we see it packed inside and then from the outside—a spec of a machine rolling out against the vast expanse of nature. Both minutiae and a whole world in itself, brushing against the limits of time and space.

“According to the Turkish Ministry of Interior General Directorate of Migration Management, some 53,176 migrants have been stopped so far this year until 16 June. The figure is half of the 122,302 registered last year and a major drop from the 454,662 migrants stopped in 2019,” an Al Jazeera report reads. “For Iranians, they hit the road to Turkey—their main access point to Europe—dreaming of better economic opportunities and escaping the oppressive government in Tehran. But the route is fraught with peril and risk, with many joining the growing list of victims of human trafficking in the region,” it continues. Farid’s secret departure from Iran is a precarious one that involves laying blind trust on a man Khosro has only spoken to over the phone. The quiet pain of his departure doesn’t just emerge from the fact that a son is leaving his home, but from the fact that his departure isn’t a choice. Not only is it forced but it’s also dangerous. Everyone puts up a facade of joy as the quiet pain builds up like a volcano, whose outburst is skilfully suppressed by the never-ending banter between the little child and his parents.

Rayan Sarlak and his unbounded energy is the storm that never allows the dust-like grief to settle on the surface of the story. Talkative, unrestrained, adorable children make frequent appearances in Iranian cinema. In their vitality, they hold the promise of a future while serving as reminders of the innocence that an autocratic state slowly gnaws away at. Within the limitless world inside the car, Sarlak dances, fights, plays an imaginary piano, draws, and cares for an ailing dog—undoubtedly the king of his little kingdom. Against the vast sky of the outer world, he is only a dot in the distance as he stands tied to a tree, crying to be let free as his parents bid farewell to his brother. Panahi plays a lot with distances—sometimes zooming into the family’s most intimate interiority, and sometimes zooming out so much that we see their bodies becoming blurry dots in the distance as we only hear them wail in anguish. There are some things we are allowed to know and see up close—universal as they are—and there are some things some of us will always just be able to see, but never truly feel. Like losing a loved one to distance because the State wouldn’t let us hold them close.

Panahi creates beautiful niches of time where each character speaks to another privately, quietly, without the interruption of the larger clamour of the family. These are the moments in which the veiled happiness of the continuous car karaoke cracks and the pain slips through. “Once out of the country, I’m sure he’ll work hard, become rich, buy a house. And we’ll be reunited,” the mother says to her husband, threatening to break the veneer of composure she has been holding for her children. “Him?” Khosro jokes. The taut equilibrium of emotions that Panahi maintains masterfully till the end, is restored. When Farid and Khosro sit by a creek chomping on apples, each one asks the other to not worry the mother. There is a lightness with which love rests on the people in Hit the Road; always a joke to undercut pain, always a quip to counter a doubt, for as long as the children are around. There is so much music in the film—all pre-revolution popular Iranian songs that are now banned, and a variation of Schubert’s Theme by Peyman Yazdanian—but barely to a point where it births an overwhelming sense of melodrama.  

For a while, as Khosro and the younger son go on spinning tales around Batman and his car, the mother stares at the sky above, imagining her world slipping through a black hole and stars gathering around her husband and son, perhaps seeing Farid go deeper and deeper into the night in his spaceship—blurring the limits of time and space. The family has sold their house and their car just so the older son could find himself a refuge away from what they’ve called home all their lives. Fighting her tears, the mother keeps her eyes on the road. Looking out into a world where her little son still manages to wake up in delight and kiss the ground: “Thank you, God, for this scenery…God almighty, what a great job you did!”

This International Film Festival Rotterdam article was published in February 2022