The options for filmmakers, musicians, and other artists in Iran have dwindled to about two: arrest or exile. Jafar Panahi (Off Side) chose to remain in his homeland and has been in jail since last March. Bahman Ghobadi opted for the latter alternative (for now), but not before he completed — guerrilla-style, in the streets of Tehran — this disarmingly cheerful, ostensibly grim quasi-documentary. A recurrent theme in Ghobadi’s previous films, like Half Moon, has been the liberating, subversive power of music and the efforts of tyrannical regimes to repress it. So what better swan song to Iran than a movie musical? Hence, No One Knows About Persian Cats, which is kind of like John Carney’s 2006 hardscrabble charmer Once, only with morality police and sharia law.
|No One Knows About Persian Cats | Directed by Bahman Ghobadi | Written by Ghobadi and Roxana Saberi | with Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan KoshaneJad, Hamed Behdad, Hichkas, AND Hamed Seyyed Javadi | IFC Films | Persian | 106 minutes|
Like Once, this is the story of an attractive young couple who just want to make music — in this case, Negar (Isabelle Adjani look-alike Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad, who with Shaghaghi forms the now London-based band Take It Easy Hospital). They show up at a recording studio where a disgruntled film director much like Ghobadi is letting off steam by recording some traditional songs (a nod, perhaps, to Abbas Kiarostami’s reflexive, mirror-box movies). But this is their story, not the filmmaker’s, and the desperate pair are introduced to Hader (Hamed Behdad), a slippery facilitator, for help with their problems. They have a gig in London; what they don’t have is a visa. Or, for that matter, a band — their usual musicians have been scattered or detained after participating in a covert concert that was broken up by cops who accused them of devil worship.
So Hader takes Negar and Ashkan underground (literally, in some cases), and they first make contact with a delightfully raffish crook willing to get them the necessary travel documents — for a price. Looking for band members is a little more complicated, and at this point, the film becomes a de facto pseudo-documentary on the harassed but indomitable music scene in Tehran. Followed by a hand-held camera, Negar and Ashkan pass through tunnels and into holes in the wall and even drop by a dairy farm to interview and audition prospective vocalists, drummers, and others, with each encounter ending in an MTV-style video of the musicians performing a number. It’s a magical misery tour of a representative handful of the thousands of rock-and-roll, heavy-metal, hip-hop, and other pop outfits that persist even though — or perhaps because — their music is a punishable offense in a draconian society.
And these cats are good. Not just musically, but morally, as well. They don’t drink or do drugs, and everyone lives in garrets adorned with the earnest posters (Brando in The Wild One) and reading material (Kafka) you might have found in ’60s dorm rooms. Forgoing the hedonistic excess of Western pop stars, they sublimate their rebelliousness into the energy and lyrics of their songs, which are the film’s true revelation.