At first, The Mirror seems like a near-remake of The White Balloon. It focuses on Mina (Mina Mohammad-Khani, who also starred in the earlier film), a first-grader who is trying to find her way home after her mother fails to pick her up at school. As in The White Balloon, Mina's character is plucky and self-possessed in the face of a world of relative giants. She unself-consciously braces every adult that crosses her path, insisting that they help her find her way, even as she defiantly refuses to admit that she's lost.

Then, a little more than a third of the way through the movie, Panahi throws us for a loop. After Mina is abandoned on a bus, just when we expect her to start crying, she suddenly looks straight into the camera. From the other side of the invisible line between film and reality, we hear a voice say, "Don't look at the camera, Mina." The little girl doesn't listen. "I'm not acting anymore," she replies, and stomps off the bus, discarding parts of her costume. The camera swings around and shows us the flustered crew, as well as the "camera" -- an early signal that the disruption is not spontaneous but is, in fact, part of the script.

Various crew members try to get the kid to explain what's wrong, but she refuses. When she forgets to take off her radio microphone, they decide to surreptitiously follow her and continue filming. Of course, the "real" Mina is in precisely the same situation as the character Mina: She has to find her way home in a city full of busy, impatient adults. The camera tracks her through the streets, occasionally losing her in traffic before backtracking and locating her through the sounds that the microphone picks up.

As the real Mina continues the odyssey begun by her character, the confusion between reality and story grows: Commuters try to board the bus from which the film crew is shooting; Mina runs into one of the film's bit players, who confides that her earlier dialogue wasn't written by the filmmaker but was simply a genuine description of her life.

In interviews, Panahi is a little cagy about the genesis of the project. Without claiming that the idea grew out of the filming, he tells us that, after interviewing 7,000 children in two months, he had at first cast a different little girl, who refused to continue acting after the first shot. He instructed her to act upset for the second shot. She asked why.

"Because your mother isn't here," he told her.
"But, if my mother doesn't show up, I don't get upset."
"Well, you're playing the role of someone who does get upset when her mother doesn't come for her."

"Then go and find someone else who does get upset when her mother doesn't show up," she announced.

Throughout the last two-thirds of the film, it is possible to entertain the illusion that the crew is simply improvising: The microphone fritzes out a few times. And maybe they're shooting with two cameras, and the camera we see on the bus was legit.

In addition to its self-reflexive theme and its view of children in an adult's world, it's quite possible to read The Mirror as an allegory about Iranian society. The conversations we overhear on the street center around two subjects: All that the men (including the members of the film crew) seem to care about is a big soccer game, which we catch snatches of on the radio; the only times they digress are when they're discussing marriage and the role of women -- sometimes in response to female challenges.

Mina, the woman-in-progress, is already showing that she's fed up with playing a role determined by others. (And, when we do learn a little of why she quit, it has to do with what she sees as the character's demeaning aspects.) But we see that, even after quitting and returning to being herself, she still doesn't have full control over who she is. Being a child, she is essentially invisible; as a woman, she may be equally invisible.

Her only tool for escaping this fate is to make herself continually audible ... to keep yelling for attention and being incredibly forward, no matter how steadfastly those around her ignore her. Only near the very end, when she stops playing the game altogether, refusing even to wear the microphone, does she achieve something like independence from those who would control her existence.

In Farsi with English subtitles.
Plays at 8 p.m. May 14-16 at Webster University.
-- Andy Klein

TEA WITH MUSSOLINI
Co-written and directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Even English actresses of a certain age have a difficult time finding good roles, so it's understandable that Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright might jump at the chance to star in Tea with Mussolini, Franco Zeffirelli's new film about a group of English expatriates living in Florence during the 1930s who willfully ignore the ominous war clouds gathering over Europe. Based on the Italian director's own childhood, the picture is a bit precious, even frivolous -- especially after such visceral experiences as Saving Private Ryan -- but it is clearly intended as a sweetly nostalgic memory piece in which the true horrors of the period are assiduously avoided.

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