In his pre-premiere remarks at Toronto, director Wayne Blair noted author Dalia Sofer’s adamance about not selling her international bestseller to “Hollywood.” Yet the theoretically more agreeably international team that won those rights ends up subjecting “Septembers of Shiraz” to all the stereotypical compromises of Hollywoodization, with alternations both minute and major contributing to a generic dilution of culturally specific material. This autobiographically inspired tale of a wealthy Jewish family in Tehran suffering under Iran’s shift to fundamentalist Islam, which played in print as hard-hitting but nuanced, now feels like a simplistic, somewhat pandering melodrama that will please armchair Islamophobes. While the novel’s rep will carry the pic forward to an extent, this hopeful awards-bait adaptation won’t score the critical support that would ignite breakout from niche B.O.
Going for obvious notes from the get-go, the filmmakers establish their lead characters’ Westernized lifestyle with a “Boogie Nights” echo as the camera tracks at length through an upscale party to the sound of the BeeGees’ “Staying Alive.” Actually, the party is already pretty much over for the Amins and their friends: It’s mid-1979, and the Shah of Iran has been overthrown in favor of an Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini. While jeweler Isaac (Adrien Brody) is a self-made man who considers himself apolitical, he and his wife, Farnez (Salma Hayek, billed as Hayek-Pinault), got rich catering to the royals and their cronies. Their teenage son, Parviz (Jamie Ward), is packed off to boarding school in the U.S., in effect fleeing the political turmoil like many of the privileged Iranian class. But his parents are reluctant to leave their homeland with their younger daughter, Shirin (Ariana Molkara), delaying that decision until too late.
One day Isaac is arrested by the Revolutionary Guard and taken blindfolded to a prison, where he’s held for his “decadent” Western lifestyle and wealth as much as for any real or imagined crimes. When he fails to incriminate friends or offer up much to incriminate himself, chief interrogator Mohsen (Alon Aboutboul) happily administers the tortures himself. Meanwhile, Farnez frantically tries to discover what’s become of her husband, at the same time worrying about arrest herself, as well as the suspect loyalties of housekeeper Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Morteza (Anthony Azizi).
The latter two have benefited considerably from the Amin family’s largess. But revolutionary convert Morteza is now full of bilious judgment toward their benefactors’ upper-crust lives, and has passed some of his class discontent along to mother. Eventually Farnez finds this ingrate (whose part is somewhat built up from the book to provide an easy audience target for loathing) looting the assets of the jewelry business into which Isaac was kind enough to hire him.
Hanna Weg’s screenplay maintains the essentials of the novel, apart from the understandable decision to basically eliminate a full-blown parallel plotline involving Parviz in Manhattan. But the initially small changes wrought upon the original material, as well as some larger, later ones, nearly all serve to cheapen and conventionalize the original story. A likely source of comparison will be another widely read novel about real-world 20th-century radical Islamic oppression, “The Kite Runner.” But while that film adaptation actually improved upon a manipulative, melodramatic book, “Septembers of Shiraz” goes in the opposite direction, flattening Sofer’s narrative and characters into cliched moral black-and-white. The changes escalate toward a hyperbolic last reel that, yes, actually shoehorns in a squealing car chase.
It’s anyone’s guess why the producers (including Gerard Butler) thought Blair, of the feel-good pop musical “The Sapphires” and various Australian TV episodes, would be a good choice here. In any case, he shows no particular affinity for suspense, either psychological or physical (the torture sequences should pack a lot more punch). A routine thriller tenor throughout is underlined by undistinguished visual presentation, with d.p. Warwick Thornton sticking to the already exhausted gambit of handheld camera with extra palsy for pseudo-documentary “realism,” plus a banal score of de rigeur Dolby heart thumps, urgent synth strings and vague “exotic” motifs by Mark Isham, who can do better and should have.
It’s no surprise, then, that the international cast fails to cohere or convince in much the same way that the largely Bulgaria-shot production generally feels like an inauthentic outsiders’ approximation of Iranian history/culture. Their casting bringing a more youthful, glamorous tenor to the book’s stolidly middle-aged (and creditably flawed) characters, Brody and Hayek create adequately sympathetic if rather generic protagonists, hitting the anticipated emotional beats amid crisis. Aghdashloo (a more natural choice for Farnez) is solid, but other supporting figures prove underdeveloped or one-note.
While tech/design elements are pro, none help “Septembers of Shiraz” become any less hectic or superficial a treatment of a good novel that should have made for a much more flavorful, thoughtful and moving film.