You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Desert Dancer’

Footloose Iranian students defy the Ayatollahs in a generic biopic of dancer Afshin Ghaffarian.

Freida Pinto, Reece Ritchie, Tom Cullen, Nazanin Boniadi, Makram J. Khoury, Gabriel Senior, Bamshad Abedi-Amin.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2403393/

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.

Film Review: 'Desert Dancer'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, April 1, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival — opener.) Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Relativity Media (in U.S.) release presented with May 13 Films and Rostik Investment Group in association with Sarah Arison Prods., Greene Light Films, Star Land KPC, Bluepencilset, Lipsync Prods. and 6Sales of a Crossday and May 13 Films production. Produced by Pippa Cross, Fabiola Beracasa, Izabella Miko, Luis Astorquia. Executive producers, Sarah Arison, Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley, Jason Beckman, Sally Greene, Rodika Zmikhnovskaya, Jeremy Cowdrey, Marina Fuentes Arredonda, Mohammed Al Turki, Hamza Talhouni, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Rick Porras, Nigel Thomas. Co-producers, Parisa Dunn, Olly Robinson.

Crew: Directed by Richard Raymond. Screenplay, Jon Croker. Camera (Tehcnicolor, Panavision widescreen), Carlos Catalan; editors, Chris Gill, Celia Haining; music, Benjamin Wallfisch; music supervisors, Iain Cooke, Ian Neil; choreography, Akram Khan; production designer, Shahram Karimi; art directors, Alistair Kay (Morocco), Lee Gordon (U.K.); costume designer, Louise Stjernsward; sound, Will Whale; supervising sound editors, Andy Shelley, Stephen Griffiths; re-recording mixer, Robert Farr; visual effects supervisor, Ben Shepherd; visual effects producer, Paul Driver; visual effects, LipSync Post; associate producer, Bia Oliveira; assistant director, Olly Robinson; casting, Manuel Puro.

With: Freida Pinto, Reece Ritchie, Tom Cullen, Nazanin Boniadi, Makram J. Khoury, Gabriel Senior, Bamshad Abedi-Amin.

More Film

  • Lisa Borders Time's Up

    Time's Up President Lisa Borders Resigns

    Lisa Borders has resigned as president of Time’s Up, she and the organization announced on Monday. Borders is resigning due to family issues, she said in a statement. Time’s Up COO Rebecca Goldman will now serve as interim CEO. More Reviews Film Review: Keira Knightley in 'The Aftermath' Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in [...]

  • Keira Knightly as "Rachael Morgan" in

    Film Review: Keira Knightley in 'The Aftermath'

    Less widely seen (and acclaimed) than it deserved to be, James Kent’s debut feature “Testament of Youth” was one of the great recent love-in-wartime dramas, translating the intimate romance and sprawling human tragedy of Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir with a grace and heft worthy of its David Lean allusions. Four years on, it’s not hard [...]

  • Inside Amazon's New Feature Film Strategy

    Amazon's New Film Strategy: Straight-to-Service Titles and Starry Sundance Buys

    It was close to midnight when Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke got the text. The company had failed in its quest to acquire “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a body image dramedy that captivated Salke when she saw it at Sundance. A sales agent on the project messaged her to say that a competitor offered a [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab

    TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab (EXCLUSIVE)

    The TorinoFilmLab has announced the 20 feature projects and five story editor trainees who have been selected to take part in the 2019 edition of ScriptLab, an initiative focused on the development of fiction feature film scripts in early development stage. Beginning in March, this year’s participants will team up with filmmakers from around the [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    North American Box Office Declines From Last Year With Weak Presidents Day Weekend

    “Alita: Battle Angel” easily won a tepid Presidents Day weekend with a $34.2 million at 3,790 North American locations, estimates showed Monday. Overall domestic moviegoing for 2019 has plunged 22.1% to $1.24 billion as of Monday, according to Comscore. That’s $350 million below the same date a year ago and the lowest figure at this [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content