'No One Knows About Persian Cats'

Pic strings an improvised tale around Tehran's underground indie-rock scene.

Fueled by frustration with the myriad prohibitions governing life in Iran, “No One Knows About Persian Cats” strings an improvised tale around Tehran’s underground indie-rock scene. Good-looking, shot-on-the-fly fifth feature by Bahman Ghobadi (“Half Moon,” “Turtles Can Fly,” “A Time for Drunken Horses”), which blends exciting musical performances with an undernourished narrative, is unlikely to be screened legally in the Islamic Republic but should enjoy a healthy fest life offshore, with niche arthouse in some territories.

Pic will attract extra interest because of the helmer’s publicly stated desire to emigrate and his connection with recently imprisoned Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi (here credited as exec producer and co-writer).

For the past 30 years, Iranian authorities have banned certain types of music (in particular Western rock and females singing solo), forcing them underground. Amir Hamz and Mark Lazarz’s 2006 feature docu “Sounds of Silence” and several shorts by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb previously explored this phenomenon, estimated by a character in “Cats” to encompass more than 312 indie groups and 2,000 pop combos.

Thin storyline follows gentle musical duo Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) as they seek bandmates to back them during a London gig, as well as the necessary paperwork that will allow them to leave the country. Although they lack the permits to record or perform publicly, they long to play a concert in their homeland before leaving.

A recording studio engineer introduces them to music and DVD bootlegger Nader (Hamed Behdad, over-the-top annoying), a motormouth with connections to local bands and black-market passports. Most of the pic involves Nader hustling Negar and Ashkan to (literal) underground sites where a variety of real bands practice amid makeshift sound-proofing contraptions and ongoing squabbles with family and neighbors.

Often riding three on a motorcycle through the perilous Tehran traffic, their excursions are not without humor. Biggest laughs come from a rehearsal in a cowshed on a remote farm, when Ghobadi cuts to bovine reactions. Bureaucratic absurdities also draw chuckles, such as a list of banned female vocalists, a recital of prices for forged documents and Nader’s arguments with a judge.

Repping a wide range of genres, the musicians appearing include Hichkas (performing the popular rap “Wake Up God”); a blurred-focus Rana Farhan singing a jazzy number about a drunken lover; and electric-blues band Mirza, led by electrifying voice of frontman Babak Mirzakhani. Groups are identified only in fast-moving end credits, which will frustrate some viewers.

As the various groups perform (some in English and some in Farsi), Ghobadi employs rapidly cut-to-the-beat montage sequences (like earnest MTV) that show gritty aspects of Tehran life. Powerful lyrics work better to convey Iran’s current stifling atmosphere for rebellious youth.

Pic’s rather melodramatic ending also serves as a cri de coeur for artistic freedoms.

German co-producer provided post-production facilities.

No One Knows About Persian Cats

Iran

Production

A Mars Distribution (in France) release of a Mij-Film production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Bahman Ghobadi. Executive producer, Roxana Saberi. Co-producer, Mehmet Aktas. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi. Screenplay, Ghobadi, Hossein M. Abkenar, Roxana Saberi.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm, widescreen), Turaj Aslani; editor, Hayedeh Safiyari; production designer, Ghobadi; sound (Dolby Digital), Bahman Ardalan. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard -- opener), May 14, 2009. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Negar Shaghaghi, Askan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad.

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