Hit the Road: A family road trip like no other

Hit the Road: A family road trip like no other
4 min read
24 December, 2021
Film Review: Recently awarded the Jury Prize at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival, Iranian helmer Panah Panahi’s debut Hit The Road is a melancholic drama, uplifted by the wit of its youngest lead character.

One of the most interesting Iranian titles of this year’s festival season, Panah Panahi’s debut Hit The Road was recently awarded the Jury Prize at the Red Sea International Film Festival, a brand-new – and much-debated – Saudi gathering which unspooled in Jeddah from 6-15 December 2021.

The prestigious accolade came in after a highly successful festival run. World-premiered at Cannes back in July, the film later scooped the prize for Best Asian Feature at Singapore, and the prizes for Best Film at London and Mar Del Plata.

"The choice of keeping the purpose of the trip unclear represents a very effective plot device which allows to unpack – at least in part – the lead characters’ personalities and their family relationships"

In his debut feature, Panahi, an alumnus of Tehran’s University of Art, son of prominent filmmaker Jafar and assistant of the late master of Iranian cinema Abbas Kiarostami, tells the story of a chaotic family road trip across his country’s rugged landscape.

In the first scene, we get to know the film’s protagonists: a fifty-something, unkempt father with a broken leg (played by Hassan Madjooni), a slightly younger, caring mother (Pantea Panahiha), and their two sons – a phlegmatic man in his twenties (Amin Simiar) and a lively, witty child (Rayan Sarlak). Their loyal companion is an old family dog, called Jessy, who is living through his last days, and whose incurable disease is kept secret from the younger son.

But where is this family heading to? That is the first question that may arise, and it will remain mostly unanswered until the end.

However, as in many other great films and theatrical plays, here the journey matters more than the destination. The choice of keeping the purpose of the trip unclear represents a very effective plot device that allows us to unpack – at least in part – the lead characters’ personalities and their family relationships.

Luckily enough, such complexity is delivered through excellent performances. For example, we can sense that the mother – portrayed with great candour and elegance by Panahiha – constantly tries to keep her family’s spirit up, but she does so to hide her real feelings.

Meanwhile, Sarlak’s wit, typical of his young age, contributes to uplifting the tale’s mood, but we can realise that such light-heartedness hangs by a thread. His parents justify their trip by saying that his brother is going to get married soon and needs to reach his spouse, but it’s clear that the truth is destined to be uncovered, sooner or later.

By withholding key details about the family trip, Panahi is able to focus the viewer on the idiosyncrasies of the family members, leading to a intensely emotive experience
By withholding key details about the family trip, Panahi is able to focus the viewer on the idiosyncrasies of the family members, which leads to an intense cinematic experience [Panah Panahi]

The leads’ solid interpretations are further emphasised by Amin Jaiari’s predominantly static camera work. Here, the DoP attempts to limit the usual shot/reverse shot dynamics. Wisely, he focuses on depicting the characters’ reactions in their entirety while seated in their car and makes his shots wider and wider when they are out of the vehicle. Moreover, he doesn’t hesitate to film long takes so that the actors’ talent can blossom and the narrative pace can slow down as the ending nears.

In particular, two of these moments are worthwhile mentioning; the first long take sees the father and his older son placed in front of the camera while chatting next to a stream, whilst the second observes the family members from a far distance so that we can understand what is happening just by listening to their voices or by looking at how they walk.

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Even though the helmer’s main purpose is probably to explore the characters’ relationships and how these can be destabilised while escaping from a looming threat, a general sense of oppression and paranoia permeates the whole piece. In one of the first scenes, for example, a motorist wants to report a leak from the family’s SUV and the group fears he is a police officer.

Despite the presence of this tense atmosphere in the backdrop, Panahi does not make any explicit socio-political statements. Rather, he tells the viewers something about the underlying feelings one might experience while living in a police state. We don’t know why the older brother is forced to cross the border, what went wrong, who are his enemies and why he is bringing the whole family along. But we do realise that his parents might be there to enjoy the last moments of his company as if they would be on an ordinary family trip.

Panahi’s overall reticence in delving into the ‘whys’ while focusing on ‘how’ things are, makes Hit the Road a more universal tale, and leaves wide room for the family’s humour, dreams, tears and – why not – some fun car karaoke.

Notably, the film’s score features several popular hits sung by artists frowned upon the post-1979 regime, such as Ebi’s Shabzadeh and Delkash’s Porsoon, Larzoon.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland. 
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni