Combative, controlling and egotistical, yet with a streak of self-loathing, Bahman Mohassess was in some ways the stereotype of the modern artist. Celebrated in Iran before the 1979 Revolution and then uneasily incorporated into the nation’s creative profile, he tragically destroyed much of his work before immigrating to Italy, where he died in 2010. It sounds like a classic short story, and in fact helmer Mitra Farahani appositely uses a Balzac tale in “Fifi Howls From Happiness” to embellish Mohassess’ extraordinary career. Though shy on background info, the docu offers a fascinating portrait and deserves prominence at nonfiction fests.
Farahani’s inaccurate claim at the start that Mohassess is now forgotten is immediately belied by a shot at an auction, where one of his paintings goes for nearly $190,000. He was certainly lost but definitely not forgotten, at least by the art establishment. Fortunately, Farahani quickly moves beyond this sort of statement to the moment when she found him living in a residential hotel in northern Rome, where he moved in 2006. Though he had long shuttled himself between Iran and Italy, Mohassess was finally so dispirited by the quality of a creative life in Tehran that he literally “killed,” in his words, most of the works he had in his studio.
Skilled at hiding his real feelings about this shocking act of self-destruction, Mohassess belligerently tells Farahani and others that he doesn’t care about posterity, though fortunately, published catalogues at least provide visual records of his legacy. Unsurprisingly, his bold move was precipitated by the Iranian government’s own cull, which resulted in the eradication of many precious works of art. Apart from some lovely small sculptures, one of the few works he kept with him is an enigmatic painting entitled “Fifi,” providing the title.
“I’ll tell you my life story so no idiot will do it after me” declares Mohassess, though both he and the docu are less than forthcoming on autobiographical details (an analysis of his art is also missing). In any event, Farahani isn’t attempting to make a traditional nonfiction work but a subjective portrait, in the way “Fifi” is a portrait, by revealing the man behind the enigma. Authoritarian and prone to blanket statements (with a laugh like Stan Laurel’s), the artist was also gay, though like many of the pre-Stonewall generation, he disdained homosexuals, preferring sex with self-identified straight men.
The second half of the docu brings Mohassess together with brothers Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, leading Iranian artists based in Dubai. Long fascinated by the older man’s output, the extremely sympathetic brothers first decide to commission a new work and then offer to buy everything he still has; their interactions are the emotional heart of the film, and Mohassess’ renewed engagement with his art, interrupted by his untimely death just prior to putting paint to canvas, comes as a blow for all.
Via voiceover, Farahani weaves in Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” (the basis for Rivette’s “La belle noiseuse”) and inserts snippets from Visconti’s “The Leopard,” both works addressing concepts of genius and destruction, legacy and time’s passing. Mohassess was undoubtedly a maddening subject at times, dictating how Farahani should make her movie, yet one suspects that he was privately very pleased that she was making this film about him; auds will be, too. Visuals are unpolished but appealing.