Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Santuri, Mehrjui’s Iranian film is great cinema and filmfarsi B movie at the same time

The film Santoori (the Musician) is a film noir of the “Lost Weekend” tradition, a precipitous slide into addiction and loss. This type of script has been done before in a hundred different ways, however, the settings in Santoori are unique and fascinating, enough to make the viewer forget about the clichés and allow the film to work its magic.

Ali is the musician referred to in the title, played by Bahram Radan. Ali is a musician who sings in a contemporary popular style while playing the traditional stringed instrument, the santour (there! I’ve used all three spellings of this word). It is an usual and effective combination, that, like so many elements in the film, points to a deeper significance. If you are interested in popular music but not familiar with Iranian styles, then the music is reason enough to see the film, for the small snippets of music are especially beautiful (though you’ll have to ignore the wildly melodramatic lyrics). The music is actually written and performed by the very talented pop star Mohsen Chavoshi.

Golshifteh Farahani gives a stunning performance as Hanieh, Ali’s high-spirited and unconventional wife, who goes through a great transformation of her own, trying to be a wife, and a musician (pianist) while also fulfilling her own needs. Her character does not have the room to develop fully, since the story of Ali’s addiction insists on center stage. golshiftehHanieh’s dilemma is deep and Farahani has the talent to bring it out. She deserves a film all her own.

The main focus of the film is the way that Ali uses his friends and family to feed his addiction, abuses the good faith of his wife and destroys his own career with his irresponsible behavior. Ali has a typical addict’s personality, blaming all and sundry for his problem, except his own weakness. Yes, all done before. But when he truly hits bottom, living in a Tehran park full of addicts, the hellish reality of heroin addiction in modern day Iran are portrayed on the screen in ways that most of us have never seen before.
June08Santori
Hopefully, it will be just as shocking to Iranians, especially those with some power to do more to cure the plague of addiction in their society. The Iranian government does have certain programs in place to fight trafficking, and to help addicts, but not enough. Many people of the conspiracy theory persuasion, believe that the existence of addiction is actually beneficial to the government, in effect neutralizing a large segment of dissident population, and for that reason, there is a certain amount of official foot dragging in addressing the problem. Hanieh does at a certain point state a commonly held opinion in Iran, that hard drugs are so attractive to people because they simply have nothing else to do in the fanatically restrictive Islamic Republic. Indeed, the very real situation depicted in the film, in that Ali has been banned from playing public performances and thus must play at weddings and private gigs where the musicians are paid in drugs and alcohol, is aptly symbolic of the larger situation.

The film’s detractors say that the social problems are depicted in banal and superficial ways, and that the characters are too self-indulgent to be relevant. It has even drawn the unflattering epithet of “filmfarsi” which refers to the kitschiest Persian films, which use cheesy relationships and pop iconography to draw crowds. They have a point. The script has a low-budget reliance on voiceover narration to present a formula tearjerker that seems to prefer shock value to depth. However, there is method to this madness. The director, Dariush Mehrjui, has had a long and courageous career in Iranian film, and obviously he believes that he is accomplishing something with his pop references and his sometimes cloying characterizations. Perhaps he does indeed want to attract the largest audience possible, and then confront them with the ugly truth. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has banned the film, which in Iran, means that the trade in pirated copies goes into high gear and the director loses his rightful earnings from non-existent box office receipts. Thus, at 70 years of age, Mehrjui has the bitter honor of having been banned by both the Shah and the Islamic Republic. Golshifteh Farahani has also been banned from international travel, after she took on a leading role in Ridley Scott’s Hollywood production, Body of Lies. We can only join all rational thinking Iranians is looking forward to the day that the government in Tehran stops harassing its best artists and bestows on them the official recognition that they deserve in the service of their country and its culture.

Some more from Mohsen Chavoshi. Click on the photo for another of his disturbingly dark songs:

Mohsen+Chavoshi

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September 13, 2009 Posted by | cinema, music | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Fête de la Musique and the sight of blood

This year’s Fête de la Musique came at an awkward time. When I got up in the morning and looked on the computer one of the first things I saw was the cruel death of Neda on a street of Tehran. It was a sickening sight. This photo is from the beginning of the video, before the blood rushed out of her mouth and nose,Neda leaving her dead within seconds. The other photos on the web are too graphic to post here. One could say that it is a senseless death, a young girl, forced to her death on the dirty pavement of a city street, but it does not have to be seen that way. In the language and symbolism of martyrdom that is such a central element of Shi’a culture, she gave her life for her people, and she died among them, contributing her life force to them and letting it multiply far more than she could ever do on her own.

tambourinesLater in the day, at the demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in Place d’Iena, the music was chanting, whistles and speeches, punctuated only by a short burst of drumbeats by a group of people playing Dafs, the very large Persian tambourines. It was a jolting, insistent and fortifyng sound.

Later on, I went to the Institut du Monde Arabe for the concert on the plaza there. It was full of a jubilant crowd, and this was a good way to end the day. The images of Neda and of other bloody victims that I remembered from the demonstration (many people held up digital images taken from the internet), and these new images of happy faces blended in my mind to restore some balance.

The first performer was Makhlouf, a singer from Mekla, a city in the Kabyle region of Algeria. The MC described his style as Andalusian, and I found this curious, and then when he started singing, I could hear the connection. In his handout blurb, it states that he studied at a conservatory of Andalusian music, and the style of his music is called hawzi, which relies on a subtle and masterful vocal art. His compositions were very well received by the crowd.

Makhlouf Aberkane

Makhlouf Aberkane

The obligatory shakey-shake

The obligatory shakey-shake

After that, the next act was Tunisian, a young man at the synthesizer, named Slim. He started out playing music in the clubs of Djerba, but eventually moved to France, where he has been building his career in the Tunisian community. He played Tunisian standards which got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd,

Slim Ghanouchi

Slim Ghanouchi

who sang along and danced up a storm.

June 22, 2009 Posted by | daily life, happenings, music | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment