A disenchanted observer of changing Iranian society, veteran helmer Dariush Mehrjui offers a morbidly engrossing look at a young santouri player caught up in the hell of heroin addiction in “The Musician.” Though the film is boldly outspoken in linking Iran’s huge drug problem to a society that’s lost its moral compass, the drama itself is fairly trite, hitting all the familiar notes of an artist on the skids. Story’s downbeat slide undergoes an unconvincing upturn in the final scenes, which should help ancillary sales but will cool down fest interest.
Film has two strong commercial drawing cards in attractive young leads Bahram Radan (“Mainline,” “Gilaneh”) as long-haired musician Ali and Golshite Farahani (“Bab’Aziz”) as his spirited young wife, Hanieh. Told from Ali’s p.o.v., story skillfully weaves together past joys with present desperation.
When he meets Hanieh, Ali is already a popular singer and brilliant player of the santouri, an ancient stringed instrument played with two mallets. His rock-star good looks and sentimental verses fill his concerts with admiring young women.
Hanieh asks for santouri lessons, without telling him she’s already an accomplished pianist. After a heady courtship, the couple persuade a friendly mullah to celebrate an informal marriage at home. Their happy alternative lifestyle has only one sour note: Ali’s increasing drug abuse.
In one of the film’s frankest scenes, Hanieh mockingly asks an acquaintance if he knows any musicians who don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. However, the film dances around the idea that it’s also society’s fault. Ali’s rich, cold-hearted family disinherited him when he became a professional musician, and the government’s hostility to contemporary music robbed him of his income and self-respect. More generally, Ali sees Iran as a “ruthless, lying country that turns people into addicts.”
Bright-faced Farahani digs into the role of Hanieh, whose natural gaiety vanishes under the strain. She joins a classical music trio to support them and his drug habit, but finally (and realistically) throws in the towel. When she leaves for Canada with another man, Ali’s world collapses.
Last half-hour is a depressing description of how he sinks to the bottom, ending up as one of Tehran’s army of homeless junkies.
Radan earned a best actor nod at this year’s Fajr fest for his realistic depiction of a human wreck. Editor Mehdi Hosseinivand does a fine job reconstructing Ali’s fall in flashback, which helps mask the familiarity of it all. In its fusion of modern and traditional music, the santouri playing has a special fascination.