*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
The history of 20th-century Iran is brimming with fascinating, complex tales of personal and social travails and triumph. The country went through name changes, revolutions, several dynasties, countless heads of state, and the Islamicization of the government after 2,500 years of monarchic rule. This tumultuous atmosphere and the continual shift in powers that presided over the distribution and exhibition of art had a double-edged effect on Iranian artists: the turbulent environment cultivated intelligent and dissenting voices, and hindered their freedom all the same. Many chose to reform themselves, whereas others were forced into exile. Bahman Mohasses, the subject of Mitra Farahani’s stellar new documentary, Fifi Howls From Happiness, chose something in between.
Born in the north of Iran, Mohasses was a painter, sculptor, and translator whose avant-garde works gained him his “Persian Picasso” moniker. He was an eccentric figure, befriending oppositional artists and the royal family at once. He traveled between Italy and Iran, and felt unsettled at either home. He was a fish out of water, as many of his pieces and the film’s opening allegorically suggest. His work – much of it now destroyed either by the Islamic regime or by him– remained consistently powerful and subversive, and Mohasses was as restless and vibrant as ever even in his final days. Yet he became something of an enigma, living in total anonymity in Rome, even thought to be deceased by some.
Director Mitra Farahani is herself a similarly curious figure in a more modern mold. A successful filmmaker and painter who resides in Paris, she has made films like Just a Woman – winner of the Teddy prize at Berlinale – and Tabous, Zohre and Manouchehr, films that deal with sexuality in ways unfamiliar to Iranian audiences, making the latter something of a cult hit. In that light, this is the perfect marriage between the filmmaker and her subject. Farahani doesn’t explain how she first found Mohasses, shrouding his figure in even cloudier mystery. She is nevertheless granted access to his living space, a small hotel room in Rome, decorated with a variety of his art works. But the small space is no obstacle for the film’s edgy energy. Mohasses notes at one point that “a painting is a confined space, but reflects the infinite with limited tools.” The same can be said of Fifi Howls From Happiness.