In a low, pale light, the camera alternates between close-up framings of two silent, middle-aged men. The first, Mokhtar (Hashem Abdi), hangs his head with his facial features disappearing in a dark pool of shadows. The second looks ahead ruefully, his eyes welling with tears, as he puffs on a cigarette. After the latter closes and padlocks a set of wooden doors – we learn subsequently that he is being forced to close his place of business – the film cuts to a wintery, blue-tinted exterior twilight. Having returned home, Mokhtar explains to his wife Khatoun (Mitra Hadjar) and the family matriarch (Safari Ghassemi) that he plans to go abroad where employment is plentiful, hoping someday to send for Khatoun and their daughter (Zahra Jafari). Khatoun and the little girl send Mokhtar off at the train station stop. A clean-cut, thirty-something gentleman, Marhab (Ali Nicksolat), asks for food and lodging at a remote roadhouse. In the morning, he joins a young man, Ali Reza (Saeed Orkani), who is seated alone. The pair strike up a quick friendship, with Ali Reza eventually helping Marhab find work in his garage. In the meantime, Khatoun is employed as a seamstress in a factory, having yet to receive word or financial assistance from her departed husband. The single Marhab notices Khatoun as they cross paths in the rail yard beside the latter’s home, and again as she rests her head, sleeping against the bus window. After seeing Khatoun unsuccessfully negotiate a price for a child’s red sweater, Marhab purchases the item for her daughter.
Shortly thereafter, however, a police car arrives at Khatoun’s remote country home. Marhab correctly speculates that her husband has died, prompting an unsuccessful meeting between the single man and the widowed women. Marhab borrows money to buy Khatoun a rug, which he delivers to her house. In the next shot, we see the two grinning and laughing in a telephoto composition at the bus stop. The film then cuts to the pair as they wait for their marriage license, and again, as they cross the train tracks on foot. Nonetheless, Marhab subsequently has a falling out with his employer (Naser Madahi) leading the impetuous male lead to state that he will look for work elsewhere.
It is winter again, and the now unemployed Marhab tells his friend that he intends to go abroad to find work. Returning home, Marhab packs a bag, repeating the scene of Mokhtar’s departure. Back at the roadhouse, Marhab laments his fate that, having finally settled down, he must again go in search for work. A one-legged man soon arrives at the same location, prompting the proprietor to complain about this latest arrival, and to relate his unenviable personal history. The disabled gentleman throws himself in front of the arriving train off-screen. With the train now stopped, Marhab must decide whether he will board the train or return to his wife and stepdaughter across the railroad tracks.
For his archly mythic fourth feature It’s Winter, writer-director Rafi Pitts adopts a supremely elliptical storytelling strategy that threads together a series of chronological narrative events and interstitial moments, whose temporal inter-relationships are rarely specified – that is, Pitts rarely lets us know how much time has passed between his film’s scenes. In characteristically art film terms, Pitts refuses to utilize dissolves, on-screen titles, and in most instances even establishing shots to mark the varying temporalities between his sequences; instead, it is left for the viewer to speculate on the duration of the narrative gaps after the new sequences commence. It’s Winter accordingly represents a maximal art-house economy, a film built of a series of illustrative, glossed details. It’s Winter spends a minimal amount of time in the diegetic world it has created.
Then again, the film reveals a material abundance through its lyrical imagery. In its opening moments, for instance, where again we see Mokhtar shuffling through the thick snow that buries the sidewalk, the damp flakes collect on the toes of his boots. Following a cutaway to an overcast landscape with the same heavy snow accumulating on crisscrossing black branches as a group of squawking blackbirds take flight, Pitts cuts to Mokhtar examining the landscape with the thick flakes sticking to the back of his black wool coat and raven hair. We also watch as Mokhtar stirs a boiling pot of tar, ladles the smoldering substance with a small bucket, and spreads the syrupy liquid across the stone foundation. As such, Pitts emphasizes extreme heat to contrast with the throbbing cold that distinguished the previously noted set-ups. In sum, It’s Winter creates a very strong feel for the tactile experience of its natural environment. Hence, Pitts’s film paves the way for Argentine art-house director Lisandro Alonso’s expressly sensorial Liverpool (2008), whose credits in fact thank Pitts directly.
Of course, these same landscapes express meaning mimetically as well: as the snow falls on Mokhtar as he walks beside the deserted highway, we feel the full force of his despair following the loss of his job. Pitts and director of photography Mohammad Davoodi further accentuates his melancholy, along with that of wife Khatoun and later Marhab, through the near ubiquitous use of blue filters that provide the film’s images with their cold tone. In this respect, It’s Winter signals its substantial debt to the art cinema of its co-country of origin, France.
Much of its recognizably Iranian character, on the other hand, issues from the predominance of absences that mark the film, from Mokhtar’s emigration to the story elisions that characterize the narrative. Ultimately, this latter storytelling structure and the film’s related visual evasions (such as the extreme long-shot maintained by Pitts during Khatoun’s inaudible conversation with the police) serve to allegorize life in a nation where so much remains hidden from view. It also relates Pitts’s work to that of his countrymen Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, who each share a similar emphasis on visual and narrative absences, along with a concern for the Persian woman. Khatoun’s more existential plight does indeed structure It’s Winter, even if the narrative is focalized more frequently through the equally mythic experiences of her husbands. Where Marhab in particular is allowed to express his feelings directly, Khatoun’s remain unspoken; they provide the film with a structuring absence.