Mani Haghighi's latest film, Men at Work, is one of the most accessible foreign films, let alone Iranian films, I've seen in a long time. Its simple story is of four middle-aged men on their way home from a ski trip who make a pit stop alongside the mountain road and obsess about a large phallic rock jutting out from the edge of a cliff. They decide that they can not leave the site until they've succeeded in knocking the thing over, and make every attempt to push it, ram it, pull it, dig it out and leverage it. Others drive by, turn around and offer assistance or make attempts of their own. The four men just keep on trying through the night.
Although steeped in allegory, political or otherwise, the film is perfectly enjoyable, and quite hilarious, in its literal sense. Its enigmatic comedy is akin to something out of Monty Python, and its most basic elements align it with Looney Tunes, and yet despite its absurdity Men at Work feels completely real and reasonable. Shot digitally, it has the impression of a home movie, as if the camera is a fifth friend who merely observes and records the endeavor.
Aside from the language barrier, very little about Men at Work seems unfamiliar to a Western audience. The yuppie-style characters and their story could easily be transplanted to a Vermont setting with minimal costume or prop substitutions, and the film's symbolism finds its own meaning and relevance here in the States. Even the minimal soundtrack features American music. Yet a remake in English would have a sense of uselessness, not to mention redundancy. Men at Work communicates so well because in addition to being simple and familiar, it reveals an unknown by depicting the middle class of Iran.
Mani Haghighi has decidedly made a career out of veering away from the expectations of what Iranian cinema is. His debut feature, Abadan, was supposedly even rejected by one film festival for not being "Iranian" enough. Interestingly, Men at Work began as an idea conceived by Abbas Kiarostami, the eminent Iranian filmmaker who has, through his work, all but defined his country's place in world cinema.
While many people go to foreign films to see different cultures, others may stay away fearing a lack of relatedness. Men at Work doesn't exactly excuse the ignorance of the Western world, but it does seem to use it to its advantage. Hopefully it works out for Haghighi, because the more people who see his funny little film, the better.