×

Film Review: ‘Desert Dancer’

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

With:
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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • Beforeigners

    'Beforeigners’' Anne Bjornstad on HBO's First Norwegian Original Series

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —  HBO Europe’s first Norwegian original series, which debuted Aug. 21 exclusively across HBO’s territories, has garnered rave reviews in the Norwegian press. It is also a perfect fit for HBO’s brand and goal to create bold, smart and author-driven shows. Produced by Endemol Shine’s Norwegian prodco Rubicon TV, “Beforeigners” is helmed by [...]

  • Refugees from the besieged Muslim enclave

    Sarajevo’s True Stories Market: Documenting the Atrocities of War

    Reconciliation and dealing with the tragedies of the Yugoslav Wars has been a major focus of the Sarajevo Film Festival and its CineLink Industry Days event in recent years. The True Stories Market, launched in 2016, aims to connect filmmakers with organizations that are researching and documenting the Yugoslav Wars that spanned 1991 to 2001 [...]

  • Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’

    Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ Wins Top Prize in Sarajevo

    “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević’s coming-of-age story about a teen raised in the Netherlands who returns to Bosnia to visit her ailing father, won the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival Thursday night, earning the Amsterdam-based helmer the coveted Heart of Sarajevo Award. The jury heralded the “beautifully photographed, acted, scripted [...]

  • Khadar Ahmed - BUFO - photo

    Bufo Sets Key Cast for Co-Production ‘The Gravedigger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —   Actor Omar Abdi, who starred in the Ahmed-scripted short “Citizens,” and actress Yasmin Warsame, who made her name as a Canadian model, will topline romantic-tragedy “The Gravedigger,” the latest big screen project from Bufo, the Helsinki-based outfit behind Berlinale winner “The Other Side of Hope.” The film follows a Djibouti gravedigger [...]

  • Jacobs Ladder Movie 2019

    Film Review: 'Jacob's Ladder'

    It’s understandable that someone would want to remake “Jacob’s Ladder,” Adrian Lyne’s 1990 head-trip thriller about a Vietnam veteran haunted by fragmentary nightmare visions. I was far from alone in finding the original to be an overwrought but rather thin “psychological” horror film that was more punishing than pleasurable. And it wasn’t exactly a hit, [...]

  • Fiddler A Miracle of Miracles

    Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

    Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success [...]

  • 'Weathering With You' Heads for $100

    'Weathering With You' Heads for $100 Million Box Office Haul

    Makoto Shinkai’s animated romantic drama “Weathering with You” passed the JPY10 billion ($94 million) mark in Japan on Wednesday, according to an announcement by distributor Toho. This makes it the tenth-highest earning Japanese film of all time. Since its release on July 19 on 448 screens in 359 complexes, the film has racked up 7.52 million admissions. The [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content