December 12, 2018

Iranian revolution overturns lives and viewpoints in ‘Septembers of Shiraz’

How does an Australian director whose only previous feature-length film, “The Sapphires,” about a quartet of talented aboriginal girls entertaining American troops in Vietnam, direct a movie about an Iranian-Jewish family caught in the fury of the 1979 revolution? 

Wayne Blair’s “Septembers of Shiraz,” based on the novel by Dalia Sofer, is a deliberately focused, mostly realistic, faithfully candid rendition of a singular historical event with an all-too-universal outcome. Despite its impressive cast — including Adrien Brody, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Alon Aboutboul — its uncluttered screenplay and the participation of the ever-fetching, if painfully unconvincing, Salma Hayek, the film aspires neither to artistic greatness nor to blockbuster standing. But it does hit many of the right notes, avoids most, if not all, of the wrong temptations, and ultimately engages and entertains even those who are sticklers for authenticity. 

It’s August 1979, four months after the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran and three months before the start of the hostage crisis. Lawlessness and chaos are the order of the day. Revenge — against the agents of the old regime, the privileged, the rich, the secular and Westernized — is the revolutionaries’ second most sought-after objective; the first is to take advantage of the new order to make themselves rich, powerful and privileged. 

Isaac Amin (Brody) is a self-made Iranian businessman, an honest guy who has come by his money the old-fashioned way and tried to help the less-advantaged move up a rung or two on the social ladder. He has, in fact, surrounded himself with servants and employees who owe much of their now-middle-class life to him. He has a son at an American boarding school, an elementary school-age daughter who has easily adapted to the many changes and restrictions in everyday life, and a happy marriage with his plucky if rather slow-on-the-uptake wife, Farnez (Hayek). Although he is painfully aware of the hazards of living in such dangerous times, Isaac has not followed the example of so many other upper-class Iranians who left the country in 1979 rather than risk falling into the abyss of revolutionary justice. Soon enough, his complacency, or optimism, backfires: Without warning, he’s arrested by the revolutionary guard, interrogated and tortured by a hooded former prisoner turned prison master, Brother Mohsen (Aboutboul), and condemned for having lived comfortably during the Shah’s rule while poverty and injustice abounded all around. 

Salma Hayek is Adrien Brody’s plucky wife in the movie about an Iranian-Jewish family caught in the 1979 revolution. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures

It’s a promising setup, at once specific and universal, raising the perennial questions of guilt and responsibility, of the sins of the bystander and the morality of the foot soldier. Where it succeeds most is in the depiction, thanks mostly to the convincing performances of Brody and Aghdashloo as the family’s housekeeper, of the characters’ internal metamorphosis that results from the external shift within a long-entrenched societal balance. For the wealthy mother and housewife who is convinced things will remain as they are, there is the slow realization of how easily a life can change. For the ethical businessman who believes that guilt or innocence are absolute concepts, there is the understanding that, like history, virtue and vice are in the eyes of the beholder. For the heretofore loyal servant who has never questioned the order of the universe, there is the awakening of a desire for a more just system, a more equitable distribution of wealth and good fortune. 

All this would have been a great deal more effective without the nettlesome inconsistencies the audience is asked to overlook: the film is titled Septembers of Shiraz, but one is left to wonder about the relevance of Shiraz, since the entire action takes place in Tehran, and Shiraz is metioned only in passing as the city where Isaac and Farnaz met. Brody does a near-perfect Persian accent when speaking English, but Hayek remains very much the Spanish speaker, while many of the secondary cast, ostensibly Iranian, sound Turkish, Arab or Eastern European. This, of course, begs the question of why, with so many fine, award-winning Iranian actors working in the West, only six of the film’s 39 characters are portrayed by Iranians. Granted, stars like Brody and Hayek draw investors and audiences in a way that lesser-known actors can’t, but it’s difficult to understand the logic of, say, hiring the Bulgarian Velislav Pavlov to play Brother Hossein, or the Australian Jamie Ward to play Parviz Amin. 

It may well be the case that the average audience envisaged for this film will not note, or care, that Shiraz and Tehran are two distinct cities, and Persian and Bulgarian two distinct languages. That audience may also not be aware of the improbability of much of what takes place in the final minutes of the film, when the director, having thus far resisted the urge to “go Hollywood,” suddenly throws in a high-speed chase, police dogs, a midnight chase and, alas, a hilltop scene straight out of “The Sound of Music.” But this kind of misstep, even if evident mostly to Iranian viewers or those familiar with the reality of the era, is a lessening of the narrative’s persuasiveness, a diminishing of the plot’s central thrust. 

Perhaps the most poignant scene in the story of this family of Iranian Jews is when Isaac’s torturer, Mohsen, takes him to task for having been blind to the injustices of the old society, the crimes of the agents of the previous regime against faith and humanity, and the importance of learning from the Quran. Mohsen appears entirely sincere, going so far as to remove, for the first time, his mask before Isaac. In that moment, Mohsen is the voice of the revolution, the conscience of the guilty or the bystander. And yet, only seconds after delivering his impassioned speech, Mohsen doesn’t hesitate in response to an offer from Isaac: What if Isaac were to make a “generous donation” to Mohsen’s cause? 

“How generous?” is all this committed idealist wants to know. 

It’s a familiar story, the revelation that behind all the dogma and conviction, all the faith and messianism, most revolutions are fueled at the core by a desire on the part of one group of people merely to occupy the place of another. It’s a story that “Septembers of Shiraz” tells well enough, and for this alone, this is a film worth seeing. 

“Septembers of Shiraz” opens June 24. The film is available on VOD the same day and can be seen in LA at the Leammle Music Hall and Encino Town Center.