Esfandiar is an old man who washes the dead at the mortuary, and after forty years of working as an undertaker, now he feels that the time of his death has come. Esfandiar is the head of the cemetery, and he feels very powerful, and for this reason he sees everything through his television. With his camera, he also notices the most secretive things about the people around him. Everyone fears him. He is very clever and accounts for everything, so much that he can even cheat the angel of death. The characters working at the cemetery each have different encounters with one another, but in front of Esfandiar they are tamed and obedient. Esfandiar is even despotic towards his students who want to learn the methods and customs of washing the dead bodies. One day, whilst preparing a burial service, he is taken ill. Might he too be mortal?
Mohsen Amiryoussefi's debut feature film, a dark comedy about the human condition of a traditional man with simple concerns in the modern world of today, seems to be different from films produced in contemporary Iranian cinema, with its purpose finding success at international film festivals. Although the film has some familiar characteristics of new Iranian cinema, such as a documentary-look with non-professional casting, there are other elements which differentiate it.
Amiryoussefi’s satirical outlook, non-linear narrative, and shadowy characters is extraordinary in Iranian cinema. Bitter Dream depicts the simple life of Esfandiar, an aging mortician, in nineteen episodes. By choosing Esfandiar’s point of view as the first person narrator, the director has successfully managed to penetrate the character’s internal world and portray his dreams and nightmares. The film was shot in an old cemetery in the ancient city of Sedeh (currently known as Khomeini Shahr) which is 800 years old, with few characters (one grave-digger, a female mortician and a half-witted young man who burns dead people’s clothes), all of them non-actors playing their own roles in real life.
At the beginning of the film, a report (just like a routine state TV report) is broadcasted on TV about Sedeh’s ancient cemetery, and shows a mason sitting in front of a camera telling the history of the place. We get to know all of the film characters one by one through this report. They all appear in front of the TV camera and after introducing themselves begin to criticize Esfandiar and his behaviour. They are displeased with him and claim that he has mistreated them. Then the camera pulls back and shows Esfandiar at home watching TV, and through a live contact via a cell phone threatens the young man whose job it is to burn the clothes of the dead.
Television plays a crucial function in the narrative style of the film; its interactive relationship with its viewer is used by the film-maker in an innovative way, and its role is more than just a simple entertaining medium, it actually serves as a means of articulating the conscience of the lead character. By means of the television, the director makes intervals and builds the mosaic frame of his film according to what’s going on in and out of the TV screen. In fact it reflects the true image of Esfandiar and the people around him. Esfandiar’s position as a traditional man who belongs to the old world with a limited knowledge about television and his reactions to what he sees leads to a satiric and grotesque situation even though we can still have our psychoanalytical interpretations, according to Freud and Lacan’s theories.
Although the film location is restricted to a cemetery and its personnel isolated because of their job, Bitter Dream is not totally abstract and separated from the contemporary world. In the episode of Azrael, the angel of death and the elderly man, Esfandiar’s dialogue with Masseur has obvious alluding to Iran’s today events: Esfandiar: ‘What’s up?’ Masseur: ‘Nothing. Cost of living is high. Everyday meat and bread becomes more expensive. Tomorrow one will be hanged. Two stepped on a mine. One couple wanted to go to Karbala illegally.’
But the movie is distinctively focused on death and fears of facing the angel of death. Because of his job, Esfandiar is aware of death more than any body else. But this awareness does not cause him to give up his materialistic concerns and stop oppressing his co-workers and abusing them. When Delbar (a widowed mortician whom Esfandiar is in love with) brings him some food and wants to make a call to her daughter, he asks for the fee of washing four dead bodies in return for the phone call. Esfandiar who has lived all his life in such a dreadful world finds himself as co-worker and fellow of the angel of death. He is strongly scared of death and is haggling over his life with the angel. In one scene, he is sitting next to him near a grave and we see Yadollah, a grave digger, whispering a song with the gist of ‘to be or not to be’; alluding to the graveyard scene in Hamlet. Esfandiar desperately says ‘What a life… our existence doesn’t make sense’, to which Yadollah wickedly says, ‘Particularly yours!’
Bitter Dream indicates a kind of strong and destructive cynicism which makes it clearly distinguishable from the common cheap Iranian comedies. The surreal scenes related to Esfandiar’s nightmares and anxieties; in the bathroom when he begins to see his own burial service broadcast on TV, and in the final frightening scene where Esfandiar awaits his death and prepares his own funeral, are the two brightest scenes in the film. Mohsen Amiryosefi, with his previous experiences in making short films, takes a big step in his first feature film which is a foretelling sign of an illustrious and creative career to come. Bitter Dream achieved ‘Mention spécial jury Caméra d’Or, Prix Regards Jeunes’, at the ‘Cannes Film Festival’ in 2004. It also won the ‘FIPRESCI Prize’ at the 2004 ‘Geneva Film Festival’ and the ‘Golden Alexander’ for Best Film at the ‘Thessaloniki Film Festival’ in 2004.