An unidentified parcel dropped from an aeroplane drifts ponderously from a parachute. The opening shot of Babak Payami's Secret Ballot is indicative of the gentle hold the film intends to cast on its viewer. It delicately lures your attention with quiet humour and ironic questions about one of the most revered institutions in our times.
We soon learn, if the title wasn't enough of a clue, that the parcel is related to an election. In fact it carries the ballot box that will hold the votes of a remote, sleepy island off Iran's coast, along with instructions to its recipient-a very surly soldier played by Cyrus Abidi-to escort the election agent through the island. Not too excited with the change of routine to begin with, the agent (Nassim Abdi) who shows up turns out to be a woman, which only increases the soldier's scepticism about the electoral exercise. Nassim Abdi's character is both the champion and the instrument of elections, her bounding optimism and authorised entitlement overruling Cyrus Abidi's objections. The soldier is drafted to play chauffeur-and critic-to the agent and her roving voting post.
Secret Ballot nimbly interrogates the nature of democracy. The agent is fixated on regulation and the appearance of order in a heroic battle against the messy realities of collecting votes. Episodically, the soldier and agent are confronted with situations which illuminate another complication or contradiction of her project. In one instance, an unseen matriarch oversees a settlement of renegade farmers abiding by their own governance, hinting that distant elections may make little difference here. In another, a group of enthusiastic voters cannot recognise the names of the approved list of candidates. The series of variations on this theme both poke fun at and confirm the importance of elections.
The quiet humour is propelled by the dynamics of Cyrus Abidi and Nassim Abdi's mutual antagonism. Over the course of the film, Cyrus Abidi's character changes from sceptic to believer, but the soldier, whose main occupation was chasing smugglers, has the propensity to shoot at anyone who runs away from him, a habit ill-suited to the agent's aims. Their exchanges-sometimes haranguing each other, other times teasing and almost flirtatious-provide some of the surest chuckles, but also sketch the doubts that beset the agent. Nassim Abdi's enduring optimism seems in equal parts faith and performance, as she finds she may have to smudge some of her ideals to reach her goal.
Secret Ballot has a slow pulse that quickens slightly towards its end with anxieties that the agent will not be able to return with her votes in time, rendering her effort, and consequently her purpose, futile. But this twist is little more than a flimsy narrative structure to hold together a meditation on democracy's totemic practice: the act of voting. Imperfect and uncertain, yet meaningful and vital, it is that act the film ultimately affirms.
This modest entry in the annals of Iranian New Wave films is a few years old now. But in our own electoral times, Secret Ballot seems apt to remind us how messy yet critical elections are. And its lightly-posed questions will leave you pondering for some time after.
Director: Babak Payami
Cast: Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Abidi.
2001. R. 105 min.