No one has the time of their lives in “Desert Dancer,” a fact-based drama in which all the dancing is dirty — at least according to Iran’s Islamic “morality police,” the Basij. The principal offender here is Afshin Ghaffarian, a noted Iranian dancer and choreographer who had to practice his craft in secret before defecting to France in 2009, though as with so many “extraordinary” true stories, British director Richard Raymond’s debut feature leaves you craving more truth and less canned inspirationalism. With its heart (but little else) in the right place, this thoroughly generic, long-on-the-shelf Relativity release (which opened in some overseas territories last summer) looks to exit the stage quickly following its April 10 limited bow.
Although dancing, like singing, is not an expressly forbidden activity (or “haram”) under Islamic law, it was still one of the previously permitted personal freedoms banned after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 — a prohibition that continues to this day (evidence the 2014 news of six Iranian teens sentenced to 91 lashes after dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” in a YouTube video). It’s in such a climate that the young Afshin (played as a preteen by Gabriel Senior) comes of age, graced with a natural sense of rhythm (and a few moves stolen from a bootleg DVD of “Dirty Dancing”), but no way of sharing that passion with a crowd. Until, that is, a kindly teacher (Israeli character actor Makram J. Khoury) points him in the direction of a community arts center hiding in plain sight in Afshin’s hometown of Mashhad. There, the coed(!) student body is exposed to a Pandora’s box of “decadent” Western theater, literature and music — notably the Kingsmen singing “Louie Louie,” prefaced by the teacher as “music from a faraway land written by an incredible artist.” And who, really can argue with that?
Such clandestine bliss is not long for this world, however, and by the time Afshin (now played by British actor Reece Ritchie) is a freshman at the U. of Tehran, anything resembling an Iranian dance culture has gone deep underground — literally, in the form of a subterranean techno dance club described by one character as “the Ayatollahs’ worst nightmare” — and also online, where hacked YouTube access offers an exhaustive history of modern dance (Baryshnikov, Maliphant, Nureyev) in moving images. The year is now 2009, and the air is stirring with the hope of change, as the progressive presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi prepares to challenge the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
These are the same events that backgrounded Jon Stewart’s recent “Rosewater” — another movie, like “Desert Dancer,” that took a deliberately Westernized approach to its storytelling, with a cast of (mostly) non-Iranian performers speaking English-language dialogue. Yet somehow in Stewart’s film, that artifice felt more fully realized (that is, you weren’t constantly reminded of it), and so did the characters, whereas “Desert Dancer” traffics in the kind of spirited rebel-youth archetypes who’ve been endemic to dance movies for decades. Imagine one of those old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show” musicals with the Iranian desert in lieu of a barn — or a “Footloose” in which the John Lithgow role is played by the Ayatollah Khamenei.
One by one, Jon Croker’s screenplay trots out Afshin’s fellow students (and eventual artistic co-conspirators) like a chorus line of hard-luck cases: painter Ardi (Tom Cullen), whose politically incendiary canvases are forever being defaced in the university gallery; mild-mannered engineer student Mehran (Bamshad Abedi-Amin), whose big brother is a member of the Basij; and Elaheh (Freida Pinto), the beautiful daughter of an ex-dancer with the pre-revolutionary Iranian National Ballet, whose lithe, intuitive movements quickly capture Afshin’s heart — but wait, she’s also a heroin addict! Together, they begin secretly rehearsing an original modern dance piece they plan to perform for an audience of invited guests at a secret desert locale, provided they can steer clear of the Basij’s ever-prying eyes. Inshallah.
Even on its own convoluted terms, “Desert Dancer” never really takes off. There’s considerably more talk about dancing here than actual dancing — which, when it does finally come, is impressively staged by award-winning British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan (especially an extended mirror-image pantomime performed by Ritchie and Pinto), but clumsily shot by Raymond (who only rarely shows us the dancers’ full bodies in the frame). As a political drama, however, “Desert Dancer” is embarrassingly reductive, depicting an Iran of oppressive ideologues, free-thinking Western-style youth and no middle distances — precisely the sort of movie the world needs now less than ever.