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'Island' floats in a sea of humanism

Mohammad Rasoulof's affecting ``Iron Island" is set on a majestically weathered oil tanker-- just looking at it requires a tetanus shot -- somewhere in the Persian Gulf. This post-apocalyptic behemoth doubles as a floating tent city for scores of homeless men, women, and children.

The de facto mayor is Captain Nemat (Ali Nassirian ), a determined, turbaned fellow with big , heavy eyes and a bushy gray m ustache. He makes his way around the deck and through the lower quarters kindly checking that everyone has what they need -- burkas, flour, credit for phone calls. He sees to it that what oil there is on board is barreled and sent ashore. The captain keeps the kids out of trouble and in school, too. He runs a tight ship.

His toughest charge is Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh ), a young man who refuses to stay away from the mysterious girl (Neda Pakdaman ) in the burka. Ahmad knows she's engaged to someone else, but there's nothing he can do: He's smitten, passing love notes into her tiny chambers. Her brother is miffed (he and Ahmad have a fight on deck), and her father is furious.

Current discussion of Iran as a dangerous political power tends to obscure the tales of indigence and dislocation that surface here. ``Iron Island" is about the smaller pictures inside the larger one. Even though the captain never fails to see a silver lining, things on this boat always seem to be looking down. The resident schoolteacher is convinced the ship is sinking. Even if not, the tanker's rightful owner has sold it, and the sale presumably means the inhabitants of this floating village will have to go. They try to resist, hurling shoes down as the new owners try to climb aboard. But it's only a matter of time until they're adrift somewhere else.

The film is fearlessly didactic, particularly in the classroom scenes, where the kids pepper their teacher with question s about the value of war. Yet Rasoulof maintains a steady parade of symbols and surreally deployed images (kites, junk, donkeys, battery-powered TVs) presented as simple matters of fact. Once in a while, the director will turn up a sad sequence worthy of Satyajit Ray, such as when the captain must punish Ahmad for his latest romantic transgression.

Like the great Iranian filmmakers, Rasoulof has no use for the artificiality of heightened drama. He opts, instead, for a more universal humanism, which is a better teaching tool. The captain, of course, is no less than a professor of cockeyed optimism. Even if the ship sinks, as far as he's concerned, hope still floats.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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