No One Knows About Persian Cats, the latest from Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly), is a bit of a cinematic hybrid. It is a personal story, yet also political polemic. It is a band documentary, but also a kind of verité mockumentary. It is a musical by way of music videos, but also a narrative as old and clichéd as rock 'n' roll movies and the Sundance Film Festival. Maybe it's too much, because it's neither exhilarating nor terrible. Like its characters, I guess Persian Cats just wants to be what it wants to be, and it would be content to be left alone to do it.
The film is essentially the story of three people: Ashkan Kooshanejad, a singer/songwriter specializing in "indie rock;" his girlfriend Negar Shaghaghi, also a musician; and Nader (Hamed Behdad, one of the only actors not masquerading as himself), a hustler and DVD bootlegger who promises to set these two up with what they need to perform a home-based concert and then a European tour. As we are told rather clumsily in the film's opening scene, this is a film meant to celebrate the rock 'n' roll spirit of the Iranian musicians who, under government censorship, are regularly arrested for performing their songs. Ashkan has been in jail since a concert in Tehran was shut down and all the bands rounded up by the police. It's because of this that he wants to get out of the country, but also because of this that he can't secure a passport. This is one of the many tasks that the smooth-talking Nader--who easily delivers the best and most complex performance in the movie--promises to take care of.
As we learn more about Iranian music, we begin to see that Ashkan represents an essential dichotomy in the local scene: his songs are about his life experience and are, at their core, true expressions of Iranian nationalism, but since it's a nationalism that doesn't jibe with the ruling wisdom, he is not allowed to perform. This becomes most clear when Nader tries to convince a Tehranian rapper to go with the band on the tour. He refuses to leave, because his city is his lifeblood, even as is he is forced to shoot his music video on the upper-floors of an unfinished building where no one can see or hear him.
This interior spark may be what fuels No One Knows About Persian Cats, but it also might be a big reason why those outside of Iran may find it hard to relate. Some of it is just too "inside baseball." Ghobadi stays committed to shooting Persian Cats on the fly, staying true to a Neorealist ideal. Much of the movie follows the central characters from place to place, down subway tunnels, to hidden rehearsal spaces, and to back-alley gangster hovels and illegal parties. The story structure is "we need all this stuff, and on the way to get it, let's stop and listen to some more bands." As the movie progresses, Ghobadi derails and postpones his narrative more and more, giving each band their own music video segment. Unfortunately, neither the visuals nor the music are all that good. To be fair, the literal subtitles maybe don't do the lyricists any favors: the language is removed of all flavor. The translators don't even bother to approximate the rhymes. It's hard to tell then, if the tunes have any real finesse or if it's a lot of bad high-school poetry and bald agitprop.
I get what Ghobadi is trying to do, and as a tour of the Iranian music scene and of Tehran, No One Knows About Persian Cats is a successful, if overly idealized, picture of both. It's a tad less successful as a commentary on art under oppression. (Co-writer Roxana Saberi spent time in jail when the government branded her journalism as "espionage.") Its most effective scene, one involving a dog and an overzealous policeman, is the one that has the least to do with the film's major point. In fact, it comes out of nowhere, and then vanishes without commentary. It's the only time we see the high stakes for what they really are, and yet it adds nothing to the rest of the picture. It's compelling and heart-wrenching--but also the only time I really felt anything about what was happening onscreen. In fact, this sequence hits such a spike, all that follows comes off as flat and uninspired by comparison. The climax of the film fizzles out, perfectly content to shrug its shoulders and slink off via a convenient twist rather than crash into any meaningful, declarative conclusion.
No One Knows About Persian Cats is a nice try--a noble one, even--but one muddled by its own good intentions.
Optional subtitles translate the main audio into English, including spots where the characters talk or sing in English, presumably to help us with the accents. There are also Spanish subtitles and a track in English for the deaf and hearing impaired.