Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A gay Iranian artist from the old days stars in Mitra Farahani's FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS

What a lucky break for the young Iranian filmmaker, Mitra Farahani (shown below), that she happened upon and grew interested in the work and then the personality of Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess just at the time that she did, for this has allowed her to meet, film and finally honor him and his work in a manner that neither she nor we could have imagined going into this odd project. The result, a new documentary called FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS (who could quite resist a title like that?), is something else. For most of us, at the very least, it will provide an introduction to a man and his art, not to mention his outsize personality, that should firmly lodge in our memory.

The "Fifi" of the title is the subject of one of Mister Mohassess' earlier paintings -- shown of the poster above, and perhaps his favorite of all -- from which he is never parted. We don't learn that much about the Fifi painting until later in the movie, a smart move, because by then we know Mohassess pretty well and so can better understand his feelings for Fifi and why and how he created her. Born in 1931 (he was 79 when the documentary was filmed), Mohassess came of age during the early days of the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and then enjoyed the short-lived rule (1951-53) of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Democratically elected Prime Minister, whom the American and British governments helped to over when Mosaddegh deigned to nationalize Iran's oil production, foolishly imagining that the country in which the oil existed might have some claim to owning that oil.

Evidently, from what we see and hear in both archival filmed footage (above) and present-day video "takes," Mohassess was gay and "out" from a surprisingly early age. Consequently, as popular as he and his art were, he had to eventually leave Iran, after which many of his best pieces -- both painting and sculpture -- were destroyed.

As a consequence, he himself destroyed other of his work in a kind of fit of rage against what his homeland had done. (The story he tells us of how a museum needed to cover up an exposed penis on one of his sculptures is a funny and sadly typical one.)

After leaving Iran, he settled in Italy, which as he tells it, is a country dedicated and devoted to sex, sex, and more sex, and where he has remained ever since. We see a good deal of Mohassess' work in both media (above and below), and -- hot damn -- it's the real thing.

So is Mohassess. He's funny, sharp and very appealing. "I'm condemned to paint," he explains. "Like taking a piss: I have to do it." He is also one of those homosexuals born and raised at a time when this state of being was so out of favor with practically everyone (including, I'd wager, a good portion of homosexuals themselves). "All of homosexuality's beauty," he tells us, "was wrapped up in its prohibition." Also, rather typically, he did not care for men who acted effeminate. No -- "All my boys had fiancees," he tells us proudly.

Around the halfway point, a pair of brothers from Dubai appear (above) and want to commission a work by the artist. They're a funny pair, and Mohassess takes to them rather well.  They claim to be artists themselves but also admit to being "rug merchants."

The filmmaker herself gets her own course in movies, as she and Bahman watch various films together -- one of which, Visconti's The Leopard, is clearly a favorite of Mohassess. Does the artist get involved in his own movie? Yes, indeed. He even describes rather fully the finale he'd like to see. "So, lady," he asks Farahani early on, "What's the plan for my film's music?"

That plan and a lot more come to lovely fruition in the course of this 97-minute movie. If its ending does not reduce to tears all lovers of The Leopard (and its music), I'll be very surprised. I think Mr. Mohassess would approve.

Fifi Howls from Happiness, a swell gift from Music Box Films, opens this Friday, August 8, here in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Los Angeles the following Friday, August 15, at Laemmle's Royal and Town Center 5. I don't think that any further scheduled playdates are available now, but as the weeks wear on, you can click here and perhaps discover some new cities and venues added. Eventually, there'll be streaming and DVD.

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