As the opening lines of The House is Black reminds us, the world can be an ugly place and ignoring it only makes the world uglier. A document of a leper colony in Iran, writer/director/narrator Forugh Farrokhzad and crew craft a shocking, provoking, beautiful and intelligent 20 minute short about so much more than the ugliness of life.
Sure, the immediacy of the deformities of the lepers presents the audience with the form of the body as warped, construed, maligned and deformed. On a basic physical level, these are broken individuals, for some the damage can be fixed, for others it is irreversible. Watching the doctors and nurses attempt to fix these bodies begins a process of even more pain and discomfort.
And yet, the film finds something beautiful through it all. There’s the wild abandonment and joy of children at play, oblivious to how their deficits and maladies might hamper them. There’s also a general sense of comrade. In a scene both sad and beautiful the children laugh when a boy is asked to name “bad” things and lists off eyes, hands, feet and other parts of the body often maimed and construed by leprosy.
There’s also a complicated technique where a woman recites words of thanks to Allah. These words offer up thanks for eyes, hands, feet and other basic necessities, and intercuts them with various deformed versions of these objects of thanks from various lepers.
Some have used this to read The House is Black as an explicitly anti-religious film, but I think that willfully misreads how even in their less than ideal state, these features are presented as being fulfilled. In other words, the lepers still have use of hands to perform these tasks, still have feet to walk with, and while the child does label these as “bad” because of their deformities, their existence still gives those who own them a reason to be thankful and enjoy what they have been given.
But this debate shows how powerful and complicated The House is Black is. It’s not an easy film to process. From the visceral first impact to the use of narration, The House is Black is asking us to think about ugliness in this world and how it relates to beauty. Can we still find something beautiful through the ugliness, or perhaps even because of it? In a world as ugly as the one this film shows, I certainly hope so.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing