Bands on the run in Tehran
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 14, 2010
The brilliant Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi takes filmgoers on a breathless, revelatory tour of contemporary Tehran in "No One Knows About Persian Cats," his lightly fictionalized account of that city's vital underground music scene. Since making his U.S. debut with the 2000 drama "A Time for Drunken Horses," Ghobadi has emerged as a filmmaker whose gift for poetic realism was only equaled by an unerring sense of precisely when and how to break the viewer's heart. Hearts break in "No One Knows About Persian Cats," too, but they also soar.
Following the real-life musical duo Take It Easy Hospital (Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad) as they try to put together a band and arrange exit papers for a concert in London, Ghobadi uses the couple's madcap search as a conceit for his own exploration of Tehran's vibrant cultural and economic black market. With the help of a record producer and fixer named Nadar (Hamed Behdad), Negar and Ashkan embark on a subterranean tour of the city's cellars and side streets, where they find blues, fusion jazz, indie rock, heavy metal and traditional Iranian musicians performing and recording despite being officially banned by the Islamic Republic.
"No One Knows About Persian Cats" pulses with urgency, weaving through a society that seems to exist on two levels at once: the strict, censorious brand of Islamic fundamentalism enforced by the mullahs, and the secular, cosmopolitan world that thrives just beneath the surface. If it's initially startling to see someone wearing a CBGB T-shirt in "No One Knows About Persian Cats," that shock quickly wears off, as viewers become intimately familiar with a city bursting with contradictions and a palpable, if fragile, sense of defiance.
Like Dublin in the beguiling musical "Once," Tehran emerges as its own character in "No One Knows About Persian Cats," whose title refers not only to the Republic's ban on taking pets out in public but also, one might surmise, on the session musicians and hipsters who populate its black market bohemia. (And no one is hipper than the motor-mouthed Nadar. When he's taken in for questioning at one point, his pleading for leniency plays like a one-man show in political theater.) Ghobadi's political vision doesn't allow for false optimism in "No One Knows About Persian Cats," but his belief in the power of art offers a glimmer of hope.
Contains adult themes. In Farsi with English subtitles.