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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • Colombia’s ‘Valley of Souls’ Wins Marrakech’s

    Colombia’s ‘Valley of Souls’ Wins Marrakech’s Etoile d’Or

    The 18th edition of the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival awarded the Etoile d’Or for best film to Colombia’s “Valley of Souls,” directed by Nicolás Rincón Gille. In his acceptance speech the director said: “Colombia is a country that people know very little about. But in this film I try to offer a glimpse of the [...]

  • SAFF Winners 2019

    ScreenSingapore: Philippines Projects Take Top Prizes at SAFF Market

    Projects from the Philippines took away the top prizes awarded Friday at the conclusion of Screen Singapore’s Southeast Asian Film Financing (SAFF) Project Market. The event is part of the Singapore Media Festival. The winners included director J.P. Habac’s musical comedy drama “Golden” about homeless gay seniors who reunite to perform as drag queens to [...]


    'The Favourite' Wins Big At The 32nd European Film Awards

    Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” scooped the 32nd European Film Awards, winning best film, best comedy and best actress for Olivia Colman who previously won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Anne in the film. “The Favourite” was leading the nominations along with Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor” and Roman [...]

  • Ed-Skrein-Erica-Rivas-Fernando-Trueba-Lucia-Puenzo

    Ventana Sur 2019: Big New Titles, Argentina-Mexico, Deals, Trends

    BUENOS AIRES   —  The last few years have caught Ventana Sur – Cannes Festival and Market’s biggest initiative outside France – taking place as the industry debated radical change. This year saw the Latin American industries in a state of  transformation themselves, wracked by headwinds – Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil – or looking [...]

  • 'Free Guy' Trailer: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie

    'Free Guy': Ryan Reynolds, Taika Waititi, Jodie Comer Star in First Trailer

    The first trailer for Ryan Reynolds’ “Free Guy” premiered Saturday at the CCXP convention in Brazil. Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller and NPC (non-playable character) who discovers he’s living in a video game. In the trailer, hostage situations, buildings being blown up and people shooting guns off in the street is depicted as [...]


    Asier Altuna Preps Basque Historical Drama ‘Karmele the Hour of Waking Together’

    Basque cinema is booming, and director Asier Altuna is part of the vanguard leading it forward. The Spanish filmmaker, behind 2005 Youth Award winner “Aupa Etxebeste!” and 2015 Best Basque Film “Amama” at the San Sebastián Intl. Film Festival, attended this year’s Ventana Sur Proyecta sidebar with his next project, “Karmele, the Hour of Waking [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content