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Kiarostami's crazy Russian doll 

Last week, we discussed the first film in Abbas Kiarostami's "Earthquake Trilogy," Where Is the Friend'sHome? With the second picture, And Life Goes On... (screens Thursday, May 8, at the Dryden), it becomes clear early on that when Kiarostami conceived Home?, it wasn't with a trilogy in mind.

            Set prior to the 1990 earthquake in Northern Iraq, Home? concerns a schoolboy's fruitless attempts to return a lost notebook to a classmate. The film becomes the core of what we eventually learn is a big cinematic Russian doll. Life is, in turn, a documentary set six days after the upheaval. It shows a film director (Farhad Kheradmand) and his young son (Buba Bayour) attempting to travel from Tehran to Koker to see if the two child stars from Home? were at all affected by the big quake. That's right --- Kiarostami cast an actor as himself and made a film about his own real-life journey.

            On their way to Koker, the director and his kid encounter blocked roads, giant crevasses, landslides, and even an older actor from Home?. They also pass massive destruction and an eerie field full of fresh graves. The two characters witness the mayhem from the windows of their car (as opposed to Kiarostami's Ten, in which the entire plot unfolds within a car). The director occasionally stops to listen to people tell their horrifying stories of losing children, siblings, and parents, and he witnesses their remarkable return to normalcy after the catastrophic loss of life and permanent housing.

            As crazy an idea as Life seems to be, Through the Olive Trees (screens Friday, May 9) is even stranger. This time out, Kiarostami casts yet another actor as himself (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz). The fictitious director is busy trying to shoot his latest project, which ultimately turns out to be Life. That makes Trees an ersatz documentary about Life, which itself was a pseudo-documentary about Home?. (Lost yet? Try watching the films out of order, which is what most people had to do, as Trees was the first released in the US).

            The bulk of Trees focuses on the last-second replacement of one of Life's actors, an illiterate bricklayer named Hossein (Hossein Rezai), who is supposed to appear opposite a green-eyed girl named Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian). Trouble is, Tahereh won't have anything to do with Hossein, and we later learn why --- he's been chasing after her for years, but was deemed an inappropriate suitor by Tahareh's grandmother because of his lack of education and a home.

            As you can imagine, Tahereh's refusal to act with Hossein throws the filming of Life into chaos. Eventually, the director decides to turn off his camera and listen to the stories of the locals. Trees' final shot is one of the best you'll ever see, even if you didn't pick up on earlier shots and setups that are more enjoyable if you've seen the first two films in the trilogy.

            Kiarostami clearly enjoys blurring the line between real life and fiction, even when it's accidental --- like in a scene in Life, where the elderly actor from Home? breaks the fourth wall and starts talking about his real house and real troubles. Maybe it's just an Iranian thing, because the same thing happens in Jafar Panahi's The Mirror, in which the young star tires of her role and refuses to go on. Panahi continues to shoot the girl as he tries to talk her into resuming filming and she tries to return to her normal life. It should come as no surprise that Panahi is a protégé of Kiarostami, who wrote Panahi's first big film, The White Balloon.

At the end of 2002, before Chicago became the front runner in the Oscar race, a little film called Roger Dodger (screens Saturday, May 10, at the Dryden) won the National Board of Review's award for Best Actor. Though the film landed on a number of Top Ten lists and took home some other minor awards, it was largely forgotten in the Miramax grab-fest that could outspend Dodger's studio in every way.

            Dodger is the kind of film that will really appeal to fans of Neil LaBute, David Mamet, or any other filmmaker who holds dialogue in a higher regard than, well, anything. The NBR's Best Actor is Campbell Scott, who plays Roger Swanson, a Manhattan advertising copywriter who says his job is to make people feel bad so they'll buy stuff. His knack for doing so has seeped into his personal life, where Roger effortlessly takes outrageous stances and contemptuously dissects women by, perhaps subconsciously, inferring they have the same problems he does (we don't really learn if he's ever right).

            In other words, Roger possesses the gift of gab (his nickname and this film's title stem from his ability to talk his way out of any situation). He's an unlikable character, but one that we can't help but at least kind of root for, because Roger can't help being this way any more than Jason Patric can help being equally as cutting in LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors. Roger's the kind of guy you hate to hang out with or, at best, can only take in small doses, when you're in the right mood.

            One day, after being dumped by his lover-slash-boss (Isabella Rossellini), Roger is visited by his geeky, 16-year-old nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg). Nick is in town to interview at Columbia, but is really there to get girl advice from his only uncle. What follows is a very interesting study of how men talk women into sleeping with them.

            Other than the slightly flawed (and fairly unbelievable) finale, everything else is top shelf --- from the dark, colorful cinematography, to Craig Wedren's score, to the across-the-board success of the acting. The highlight, though, is the dialogue of first-time writer-director Dylan Kidd, who has left me anxiously anticipating his next project.

The Little Theatre will begin its first ever Member Film Festival on May 9 (non-members can go, too), which will unspool six overlooked indie films from 2002 over the course of one week. Titles include "Satin Rouge," "Secret Ballot," and one of my favorites from last year, "Intacto." Visit www.little-theatre.com for the schedule.

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