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A film professor recalled that when he was little, before he knew how movies worked, he assumed they were acted out live. When you saw a movie twice, the actors had to do it all over again.

The Mirror is a thought-provoking, mindblower of a film that asks its audience to believe just that.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi tells the story of Mina (Aida Mohammadkhani), a grade schooler whose mother has not to come pick her up this afternoon. The telephoto cinematography clutters the screen with terrifying traffic jams and tangles of human legs, as Mina wanders the streets of Teheran looking for help. Her teacher is busy talking to other adults. Nobody answers the phone at her house. She is alone and scared without anyone to get her home.

Mina gets a ride part-way with her teacher’s friend. She gets off his scooter at a bus stop. She rides a bus to the end of the line, listening to the older women talk about men. But she is still no nearer to getting un-lost.

So far, the movie has taken place in real time. That is to say, 45 minutes into the film, 45 minutes of Mina’s “life” have passed.

At about the halfway point, Mina is on a bus, staring into the camera. A voice says “Mina, don’t look into the camera.” After a tense moment, Mina breaks down, angry and upset, and says “I don’t want to act anymore.”

At this point, the color timing that makes a film look “polished” is stopped and the film reverts to a more grainy, yellow look. The cameras keep rolling as a crew member follows Mina off the bus to comfort and reassure her. Others are sent with different tactics to try to convince Mina to continue acting, but she refuses. She just wants to go home to her mother.

The man behind “the camera,” which we can now inexplicably see on screen, realizes that Mina is still wearing her portable microphone. He orders the crew to keep following her as she tries to get home. The color timing starts back up and the film resumes, still in real time, but now apparently as a documentary. The second half of the film mirrors the first half. Mina still wants to get home, only this time, she appears not to be acting for the camera.

Although the film hinges entirely on its gimmick, there is more to it than just the gimmick. In addition to the rare glimpse of Iranian culture, Panahi includes a cafeteria of food for thought, with each dish made from the same tantalizing ingredient.

Broadly, the film asks what separates documentary film from fiction film. But there are also specific puzzles, too. For example, in the second half, Mina meets a woman from the bus in the first half. The woman tells her that she was paid next to nothing to be in the movie and that the lines she spoke were her real life. (But what about these lines?)

Later Mina gets away from the camera truck, even though the microphone is still working. Now off-camera, she meets the voice of John Wayne (the man who dubbed the Duke’s voice in Iranian movies). He tells Mina he saw her shooting the opening of the film “two weeks ago,” even though the soccer game introduced at the start of the movie — Iran vs. South Korea — is still being played. Appropriately, we never see “John Wayne’s” face — he leaves Mina just before the camera finds her again.

If The Mirror never used its gimmick, it would still be an engrossing film for its look at modern Iranian culture — the segregated buses, Mina’s fearlessness of strangers, the “secret” talk of the women. But The Mirror does crack, and the broken pieces make a unique, puzzling, picture.