NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS Review

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
[Originally posted for its SXSW showing, this review reappears here on the eve of the film's North American release.]

Kurdish Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi is known for his downbeat and timely cultural statements. Films such as A Time For Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly focused on the voiceless minorities of a blasted region, and garnered many international accolades. A film finely tuned to the hip pulse of the underground youth music scene of Tehran, and their plight to create amidst artistic oppression, No One Knows About Persian Cats, is Ghobadi's first film outside of Kurdistan, and his most celebratory work yet.

The film centers on two real life musicians, Negar Shaghaghi, and Ashkan Koshanejad, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, as they search for prospective band mates across the city's underground network of artists. Recently released from prison, Negar and Ashkan's hope is to rehearse in secret and escape to Europe where they can play in public.

A simple set up that essentially splits the film into two modes; navigating the intricacies of the underground scene - how to get passports and visas, how to obtain band mates, where to find practice space, how to avoid the police - and a musical tour of that scene, where a plethora of bands perform a bunch of musical styles, from indie rock, proto blues and soul, rap, world and traditional, all of which is quite good (to the point where the soundtrack album was a best seller in Europe).
This segues into beautifully shot travelogue/music video interludes, where the musical performances are woven together with footage of Tehran. This is the most thriving, boldest form the film takes as it sweeps across the city in all its incarnations. Tehran is a city in constant flux, shaping and reforming in concrete and culture before our eyes. A city of clean, efficient public transport, rising affluence, crushing poverty, old traditions, celebrations; of servitude and sin, of the repressed people who never let dreams die. Driven by the rhythm of the music, Ghobadi creates a complex and lively tapestry of time and place, condemning as much as he is celebrating.

Where ...Persian Cats falters a bit is in its continuing narrative. The music interludes, while great, do feel somewhat fractured from the rest of the film, causing for more of a start/stop beat rather than the rhythmic flow Ghobadi seems to desire.
As a storyteller Ghobadi tends to lead his films into desperate and tragic situations, many that are all too real, and happening everyday. To be fair  ...Persian Cats' opens with prophetic fragments, and continues to lay ground work across the story with Negar increasingly voicing her concerns.
But where tragic motifs felt more appropriate to the moods and stories of his other films, they just feel like an easy way out here. In a film that thrives on its naturalistic dynamism, you can see the omnipotent hand of the filmmaker sneaking into frame and maneuvering the pieces to make a further, serious statement. It feels somewhat disingenuous and manipulative on Ghobadi's part, something I felt he didn't need when he had already shaped such a bold and impassioned piece in and around the subject matter itself.

Though this final act softened my overall enthusiasm ...Persian Cats is still a culturally important picture. A film that spotlights the tenacious spirit of the unseen artist, and further exposes the outside world to the rich and diverse landscape of contemporary Iran.

No One Knows About Persian Cats won a special jury prize in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It will open in New York on April 16th, with a limited national release to follow. It will simultaneously be available in the United States on IFC Films' video on demand service. Further release dates for Europe, including the UK on March 26th, are scheduled from spring into the fall.
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