Those who walked into the March 2 screening of the fabled 1976 Iranian film “Chess of the Wind” at the John & Geraldine Lilley Museum of Art were surprised to find the traditional seating replaced with an ornate arrangement of Persian carpets and pillows.
Ushered to the north wing of the museum, students slowly but resolutely huddled together atop the wool textile, in front of the temporary scaffolding where the laptop-connected projector operated above them. Some attendees were laid back, others leaned forward, and most simply sat as upright as comfortably as possible on the ground seating.
In many ways, the unconventional setup perfectly complemented the film they were about to watch: puzzling in its very existence, yet triumphant in its realization.
“Chess of the Wind”, which stars Fakhri Khorvash, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz and Shohreh Aghdashloo, is a passionate, golden-hour-soaked meditation on the material obsession and emotional claustrophobia inherent in royal aristocracy.
Despite its elaborate production values and lavish construction, the pre-revolutionary film has a history steeped in tumult and subverted expectations.
Weighed down by unfavorable press and a notoriously sabotaged screening at the 1976 Tehran International Festival, first-time director Mohammad Reza Aslani failed to mount the meagerest of theatrical runs for the picture. In the span of three years, there was a grand total of three public showings of the 100-minute domestic drama.
An outright ban of the film in his home country following the 1978-79 Revolution threatened to insulate Aslani’s fearless political critique from the general public forever.
Following a chance discovery of a 35 mm print of the film in Tehran in 2014, a monumental 4K restoration under American director Martin Scorsese, and a heavily-publicized theatrical re-release in 2021, “Chess of the Wind” was exhibited.
The film is now being appreciated in more corners of the world than ever imagined before—including now, in a college art museum in Reno, Nevada.
The free screening was organized by UNR’s Department of English, but the success of the event can be attributed to English professor Pardis Dabashi.
Professor Dabashi’s efforts to bring the film to Reno began in late 2021. Preparing for the spring semester, she reached out to a representative from the esteemed art house cinema distributor, Janus Films, in a reluctant bid to gain a copy of the treasured masterwork to present to students in her Global Cinema course.
The single email would lead to something far more substantive. With Brian Belovarac at Janus Films, and the director and curator of the Lilley Museum of Art’s approval, Vivian Zavataro, Dabashi secured herself and the university a place in the film’s ambitious comeback story.
On top of arranging and promoting the event for over two months, the professor also delivered a 10-minute introduction to the project. Standing before the snuggled pack of students, she balanced her detailed explanation of the film’s history and themes with lighthearted remarks regarding the occasion.
“I’m playing the film off my laptop. I’ve tried to disable everything, but hopefully I don’t get a FaceTime from my parents in the middle of the screening,” Dabashi joked.
Nevertheless, in an evening destined for surprise, the ascendance and quality of the central attraction itself was a shock.
As an aesthetic object, “Chess of the Wind” is sectioned in its influences. The establishment of the royal setting in the beginning parts of the film evokes the solemn decadence of late Italian neorealism. Characters’ actions are framed through the mysterious and minimalistic power of directors like Robert Bresson. The film’s intense finale teems with the dark suspense of American noir.
Beyond copying his contemporaries, Aslani was hell-bent on conceptualizing a cinematic identity that meshed Iran’s sociopolitical upheaval with the broader context of disruption across several international film movements.
Students were riveted to spend time in this deeply deteriorative, yet quietly inspired regal wasteland—where one line of a servant’s gossip lingers in the palace annals until eventually becoming the death sentence of a corrupt nobleman.
More importantly, it was clear that Aslani’s mission to access deeper emotional and visual meaning rather than traditional politically-focused cinema transcended the boundaries of both time and language for the young audience.
Though there was not an official post-screening discussion, students immediately rose from the ground upon the film’s completion and congregated in groups inside the limited venue to exchange their thoughts.
Jefrin Jojan, Associated Students of the University of Nevada senate for the College of Engineering and self-proclaimed “local movie enthusiast,” described the film as a mix between two popular modern imports from South Korea: 2019s “Parasite” and 2016s “The Handmaiden”.
Carolyn Lemon, a sophomore at UNR, explained that, while she anticipated a more “obvious” takedown of the Shah government of Iran, the substitution of political themes for psychological travails made for a resonant viewing experience.
“It was much more about the characters … and how their motives played a part [in their actions],” Lemon explained.
In an interview following the screening, Dabashi divulged her admiration for “Chess of the Wind”, which she described as “a hidden gem” and a “beautiful and deeply smart” film.
“The fact that it’s been hiding for so long …” Dabashi trailed off, at a complete loss for words.
Dabashi, who is of Iranian descent, has extensively taught and written about films in the Persian cinematic canon. The film’s revelation visibly signaled a realigning moment in her years-long personal studies.
To that end, there was unanimous consensus among students for the continuation of international film screenings on-campus, especially after the high turnout of “Chess of the Wind.”
“I think it’s interesting, and UNR should promote it more,” Lemon stated before complimenting the culturally emblematic screening atmosphere. “[The seating] definitely added something.”
Dabashi’s enthusiasm for future events was evident in the immediate amount of thought she had concerning how to approach a global cinema screening series.
“I would love to start with different sorts of national cinemas,” she said, citing Iran and Japan as two countries of cinematic renown.
She explained that she would then “branch out” into showing movies revolving around specific themes while maintaining the international criteria.
Jojan expressed support for this prospect. He argued that the university’s English Department should push for more resources for larger venues and accommodate a discussion after the viewing period.
“I enjoyed it,” he explained, referring to the entire event at hand. “It was a new experience for me.”
In any case, the tapestry of global cinema felt palpably more luxurious and renewed in Reno with the arrival of this resurrected classic.
Wyatt Layland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.