“Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back, No more, no more, no more, no more. Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more” — Percy Mayfield
A road trip that builds on Abbas Kiarostami’s “A Taste of Cherry” and Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi,” Jafar’s son Panah has built on his father’s legacy in Hit the Road, a mixture of laugh out loud comedy, sadness, family drama, and serious social/political issues. While the film succeeds in bringing the meaning of the genre “comedy/drama,” into sharp focus, its protest against the repressive regime in Tehran is clear. From the opening scene, however, it is difficult to discern in which direction the film will go and the feeling is that the director may be limited by the authorities as to what he can or cannot say.
As the film opens, an SUV is seen crossing the dry and dusty Iranian landscape somewhere in the Northwestern portion of the country close to the Turkish border. “Where are we?” the mother (Pantea Panahiha, “Exodus”) asks, “We’re dead,” says the youngest of her two sons (Rayan Sarlak, “Gol be Khodi”) from the back seat. The occupants in the car do not seem to be engaged in a death rattle, however, and Khosro, the bearded father (Mohammad Hassan Madjooni, “Latyan”) with his leg in a plaster cast has to continually fend off the rascally intrusions of his six-year-old son. The movie primarily confines itself to the inside of a car and unfortunately our first experience is one of family dysfunction and insults.
The rambunctious, but adorable, boy is described by his father as the “little fart,” the “little monkey,” and a “pest,” but you pays your money and you take your choice. When the boy gets out of the car, he kisses the ground to his father’s protestations and the disapproval of his mother, beautifully played by Panahiha, and the indifference of their sick dog Jessy. While these shenanigans dominate the opening scene, the melancholy sound of Schubert A-minor sonata D. 784 playing in the background suggests that all is not fun and games as does the silence of the older brother, 20-year-old Farid (Amin Simiar). Though exquisite, the Schubert Sonata (used to greater advantage in Robert Bresson’s sublime, “Au hasard Batlhazar”) lends the first touch of sadness to what seems to be a joyous if obscure occasion.
The family does not tell the boy the real reason for the trip, hiding under the pretense that his older brother will be gone for a short time in order to get married. It is clear, however, that the child can sense this is a lie which may be part of the reason for his over-the-top behavior. The mother is also unnerved when she feels that someone is following their car but it is only someone trying to tell them that their coolant is leaking. When the car does make several stops, cinematographer Amin Jafari raises the film’s aesthetic level with engaging scenes depicting the beauty of the Iranian hills and landscapes.
There is one beautiful sequence where the boy lays on top of his father and they are both transported high above the earth into a wondrous panoply of stars. The focus of Hit the Road turns darker, however, as we begin to understand that the mother’s cries suggest that wherever they are headed she will not see Farid again. The film becomes even more enigmatic when the talk centers about bail and a quarantine period and clandestine meetings take place between the car’s occupants, merchants of sheep, and shadowy characters giving directions about where to go to meet up with some other shadowy people.
As he journey progresses, the viewer has an odd feeling of danger, also sensed by the occupants of the car. To cover their feelings, they listen to a popular Iranian song on the radio as if to cover their fear. Although the pop music seems incongruous given the circumstances, it seems to lighten the mood. Later, the little boy asks his dad if they’re cockroaches. “We are now,” Khosro replies, “Whenever you see a cockroach,” he says, “remember that his parents sent him out into the world with lots of hope.” And with that, the director balances humor and serious drama and, in the process, honors the legacy of his father, Jafar Panahi, now forbidden to make movies, while carving out a niche for himself as a young director from whom we might expect great things.