No One Knows
About Persian Cats – directed by Bahman Ghobadi – Film Review
IT'S HARD OUT THERE
FOR A PERSIAN
by Shawn C. Harris
published April 11, 2010
No One Knows About Persian Cats
opens Friday, April
16 in New York
(Ashkan Koshanejad) is released from prison, he and his girlfriend Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) decide to form an indie rock band. Forbidden by
law to perform in Iran, they dream of playing in Europe. But with little money and no passports or visas, that dream may never become
reality. In No One Knows About Persian Cats, director Bahman Ghobadi takes us on a musical and geographical tour of Tehran as
labyrinthine as the streets of the city itself.
The story of
filming No One Knows about Persian Cats is almost as interesting as the movie. Due to strong government restrictions on the arts and
media, Persian Cats was filmed entirely in secret, with little time for rehearsal or reshoots. It's a testament to Ghobadi's mastery
of the medium that the brisk pace of filming works for this story. A less skillful director, or one who needs to have absolute control over
every frame, would falter, leaving us with a film that feels rushed and unfinished, whereas Ghobadi's spartan approach gives the film room to
breathe and grow on its audience.
This is especially
true when it comes to the performances. In contrast to the overstudied, overwrought acting that often plagues Hollywood movies, Persian
Cats offers a refreshing change of pace. Ghobadi coaxes simple, sincere efforts form his cast. Ashkan Khoshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi are
not fake rebels seeking to rebel against authority. They are just regular people who want to make music that expresses who they are and how
they feel. The same is true of all the other underground musicians who practice and perform in secret. As a result, we not only connect with
the characters more effortlessly, we also watch the story unfold in a way that constantly feels fresh and spontaneous.
parts of the film where the director's touch is strongest are those that happen off-screen. We never see the police or government officials,
but Ghobadi subtly reminds us that they're always around. At first, they are a vague but distant presence. Then they become a minor
annoyance. Finally, they become a genuine threat. To American audiences used to taking freedom of speech and expression for granted, the
gradual realization of the scope and nature of the danger that Ashkan and Negar face leads to powerful shocks in key points throughout the
film. These moments create tension that keeps us invested in the story and underscore exactly what Ashkan, Nedar, and other Iranian musicians
risk to make their art.
never get any sense of what Ashkan and Negar's music is like or what it means to them. There are snippets of lyrics and a few notes. We are
told that they want to create indie rock, but in the context of this film, that could mean anyone from Madonna to 50 Cent. We are told that
the music they create is not anti-Islamic or anti-government, yet Ghobadi never shows us why the music Ashkan and Negar want to make is so
important to them that they're willing to risk so much for it. As the film goes on and the stakes climb higher, we are left wondering why
Ashkan and Negar feel it was worth it.
Yet this is a minor
quibble in an otherwise wonderful film. The story and characters are deceptively simple, yet lurking beneath is a powerful message. In No
One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi shows us that no matter how society tries to control or repress or destroy it, people will
always make music.