No One Knows About Persian Cats

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/25/10 00:25:22

"Secret Soundtrack"
5 stars (Awesome)

"No One Knows About Persian Cats" doesn't initially look remarkable; indeed, midway through it, it appears slight of frame but bloated by music videos; interesting, but trying to be two things and doing neither well. But it eventually becomes clear that those musical interludes are not nearly as extraneous as they may at first seem, and that's before director Bahman Ghobadi REALLY drops the hammer on us.

It starts off kind of cute, with a recording engineer talking with a friend about how the man he's recording is planning to make a movie, starring local musicians. He mentions two by name, and we soon meet them: Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) is a singer and songwriter who has managed to keep her record clean. Her boyfriend Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) has not; he's just spent some time in jail for the crime of playing indie rock. Negar has a chance to play in London, but that involves getting a band together and acquiring papers. The DVD/CD bootlegger who copies their demo, Nader (Hamed Behdad), flips for it, and promises to help them put a band together and stage a concert to help pay a document forger to make up passports and visas. It sounds great, but even in countries where rock & roll is not a crime, folks like Nader tend to promise more than they can deliver.

There's independent film, and then there's what Persian Cats represents: A film made with what I presume are mostly non-professional actors and shot without permits in a country where expressing some of the views espoused can get you thrown in jail or worse. I initially presumed that it was shot in some relatively safe country, like Jordan or Morocco, using stock footage to create an illusion that the characters were in Tehran. It appears to be the real deal, though, which I guess explains why one of the music video segments opts not to show the singer directly, but instead either has the camera pointed off to the side or focuses on the extreme foreground, leaving her an obstructed blur. I'm kind of amazed that other musicians didn't demand similar treatment, especially the rap group.

It's not just the thread of arrest that marks this movie as independent, though; it's got a grassroots, do-it-yourself feel to it. The camera isn't always in an optimal location and there are moments, especially early on in the film, when things in the background (like the cats climbing all over one apartment) draw the eye away from the characters. The audience notices this stuff, but it doesn't come off as showy or amateurish; instead, it gives us the realism of a faux documentary without the nagging question of who has the camera.

That's especially important toward the end, when things take several turns for the dark. Ghobadi and his co-writers are clever in how they set the film up; although there are mentions of censorship and Ashkan getting out of jail, the repressiveness isn't overwhelming for the first half; Ashkan and Negar could often just be kids struggling to make it as musicians anywhere. When the film does opt to remind us that they live under a capricious dictatorship, it's not an act of censorship that does it, but another form of abused authority successfully calculated to have the audience react with "this place needs a revolution". After that, things feel different, although Ghobadi and company don't change the style much at all.

I presume that Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad are playing fictionalized versions of themselves, but that's not always an easy thing to do. They do a nice job, though, not giving their characters an exaggerated quirks but instead just letting them be young people with a passion for music. The film doesn't spell out whether they are meant to be friends or lovers, but either way, they're comfortable closeness works, with Shaghaghi displaying a growing pessimism and Koshanejad projecting the sort of good nature that can reel it in.

Hamed Behdad comes close to stealing the show as Nader. He comes off as a buffoonish character early on, all bluster and promises he can't keep, but Behdad and Ghobadi pull off a cleve trick in the second half, spending a little more time with him as a scene's main character, rather than somebody with Negar and Ashkan, and we get to see that there's an element of desperation to his hustle, but also a downright shocking level of something else under the fast talk. Behdad makes what seems like a stock character into someone really interesting.

The last, and perhaps most important, major character in the movie is the music itself. Though Negar and Ashkan are looking to play indie rock, their quest for other musicians to fill out their band leads them around Tehran to people playing every flavor of rock & roll, from indie to metal to rap. There's traditional Persian music, and a pleasant surprise toward the end when the recording engineer we've seen off and on throughout the movie picks up a guitar and plays something enjoyably bluesy.

The songs interrupt the story of "Nobody Knows About Persian Cats", so that Negar and Ashkan give way to montages of contemporary Tehran, a schizoid city that is modern and bustling in one shot and miserable in the next. Neither is a full picture, of course - as all the shots of characters soundproofing rooms shows, great effort is usually made to hide both hope and despair, making this film's honest and authentic depiction of both a rare treat.

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