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Hit the Road review - a beautiful and touching debut

Panah Panahi’s masterpiece is a road trip film with an unconventional sci-fi heart

Hit the Road family
via screenshot YouTube/Picturehouse

Hit the Road is the feature film debut of Iranian director Panah Panahi. Panahi’s father, director Jafar Panahi, has been sentenced to six years in prison for enquiring about the arrest of fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof. Hit the Road is a heartwarming – yet heartbreaking – foray into classic Iranian road trip movies.

Tyneside Cinema says that the film fits into:

a grand tradition of New Iranian Cinema – one that encompasses Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and others – in which journeys, whether by car or on foot, are used to explore major existential questions, and the state of the nation. Magical, humane, and often centred on women and children, in these films travel becomes a seismic, often spiritual journey.

Iranian road trip films feature many of the tropes seen in American road trip ventures. The chosen vehicle of travel is often a character in its own right, the landscapes are often a negotiation of unknown fears and inner turmoil. You’d be forgiven for thinking of notable American examples like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), the earlier films in the Mad Max franchise, Easy Rider (1969), and Thelma and Louise (1991). It would be a mistake, though.

Wide expanses

Hit the Road hills
via screenshot YouTube/Picturehouse

Hit the Road is firmly in a specifically Iranian tradition. It’s a slow-moving noisy journey into the metaphysical, with a tinge of magical realism. A frazzled mother and brusque father, Khosro, travel with their two sons through sometimes bleak and sometimes lush landscapes. The younger son is a cacophony of noise and movement. The older son Farid however, is a steadier and sadder vision. The family dog, Jesse, travels with them and we’re told that Jesse is on the verge of death. We never discover why the family are travelling to leave Farid with a group of men who’ll seemingly help him leave the country.

None of the adults let the much younger son know the real reason for the journey; instead, they tell him that his older brother is going to get married. There’s mention of the parents selling their house and car in order to scrounge up bail for Farid, and their heartbreak at having to hand him over to an unknown border is palpable.

It’s an inspired choice to keep the reasons for Farid’s departure from the audience. Too often, any justifications for movement across borders are dismissed by coddled citizens of the most powerful nation states. The camera occasionally veers uncomfortably close to the family, and this is peppered with faraway shots where we can barely hear what’s going on. Panahi weaves a tapestry of precisely crafted knowledge of the family. We’re given a limited, yet paradoxically thorough look, at who they are.

As the family move closer to the moment where they’ll hand their son over to his unknown fate, the younger child grows even more exuberant. His anxious fidgeting and yelling are the displaced emotions of his family who are perhaps avoiding confronting their own feelings, rather than protecting him.

One pivotal moment features the mum asking Farid what his favourite film is while they share a cigarette. He answers that it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s a telling choice. He describes how the latter film features a journey into uncharted territory for over half an hour. What then follows in Hit the Road is just that: a journey into the unknown.

Borders of space

Hit the Road fog
via screenshot YouTube/Picturehouse

The family’s trek to hand over their son is set across impressive landscapes. There’s lush rolling hills, a series of otherworldly settings with beautiful rose-tinted hills, and occasional thick fog that makes them appear as though they’re standing against a white backdrop.

The mum in particular struggles to contain her emotion at losing her oldest son. When they’re waiting to say their final goodbyes she stands looking out at the thick fog, barely holding back tears. Her youngest son bounds over for a hug, before lying down on top of his father. In one of the more surreal moments of the film, Khosro is wearing a silvery bodysuit, presumably to keep warm. It almost looks like a spacesuit, and the pair lie on their backs staring up at the stars. Khosro tells a jokey story to distract his youngest son and slowly the grass they’re lying on fades away to a backdrop of stars in space. They float in the middle of the screen and slowly move further away from the audience. The scene is riven with drama and emotion. Rarely do the characters explode in emotion, choosing instead to find quiet corners where they can spare a few seconds for fraught but potent emotion.

In Hit the Road, it’s not the journey that’s the destination: it’s the unknown destination that awaits Farid. There’s a heavy implication that he’s going to travel across borders with a group of men. There’s never any doubt that he can avoid the journey, and the family’s quiet desperation spills out from their rental car onto the sparse landscapes. As far as this family is concerned, the borders their son has to cross may well be insurmountable barriers across time and space.

To look at the stars is to imagine a world beyond your own. Hit the Road masterfully tackles the emotionally volatile journey that many have died making across hostile borders. It’s no accident that some of the backdrops of the film look like they could be set on Mars or some other faraway planet. The last part of the film, after Farid has left, is the most sparse and barren. Having touched their grief at the loss of their son on a white foggy background, now that he is gone for certain the family are left with emptiness. Their surroundings are dry, sparse.

Planting a flag

Hit the Road expanse
via screenshot YouTube/Picturehouse

Jesse, the family dog, is often said to be on the verge of death by the family. She actually looks happy and healthy, full of life. When she appears to die, you can see it coming. There’s a cheeky blink from the dog as she’s waiting to be buried by Khosro. Despite their earlier protestations that their youngest son would be upset at Jesse’s death, it’s the parents who look the most aggrieved.

Jesse’s death doesn’t make sense, but then these kinds of departures never do. Khosro buries Jesse and plants a makeshift flag composed of a stick with a ribbon tied to it. The flag sticks in the arid ground and flutters as their family heads back to the car. They make as much noise as they can as they sing along to a song, trying to mask their pain. The pain, however, bleeds out onto the empty terrain. The new world they’ve conquered and planted a flag in offers little hope, in spite of their vast journey.


Hit the Road, a film by Panah Panahi
via YouTube screenshot/kinolorber

Panahi masterfully blends moments of the family staring despairingly into the camera with huge landscapes that should dwarf the group. Their false cheer, sometimes genuine cheer, grief, and togetherness end up spilling out onto their landscape, just like all good road films.

Hit the Road is so much more than that, though. It’s an emotional exploration of new frontiers. It takes the tropes of road films and imbues the unknown against a backdrop of time and space. We never find out what becomes of the eldest son who has to leave his family. It uses the allegory of journeys through space to ground the gut-wrenching loss of having to leave family to cross borders. It doesn’t matter why, and it almost doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is the foray into an entirely new and unforgiving frontier.

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