Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Wayne Blair
Stars: Adrien Brody, Salma Hayek, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Alon Aboutboul, Jamie Ward, Navid Navid, Anthony Aziz, Gabriella Wright, Ariana Molkara.
Based on Dalia Sofer’s semi-autobiographical 2007 novel, Septembers Of Shiraz is a drama set in Iran in 1979, at the time of the overthrow of the Shah and the rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Up until then, Iran was a fairly open society in which people lived and worshiped in harmony. But with the rise of radical Islam and fanaticism, the country saw the rise of religious persecution, especially of non-Muslims. When the Ayatollah rose to power, many faithful followers of his teachings turned on former friends and colleagues, exacting a kind of petty revenge. Alcohol and music and western ideas were banned, and a stricter, more oppressive interpretation of the Koran and Sharia law were introduced.
One such victim of this mindless persecution was Isaac Amin (Adrien Brody) a wealthy Jewish diamond merchant, who was declared an enemy of the state. His privileged lifestyle made him a prime target though for the fanatics, who accuse him of being a spy for Israel. He was arrested, vigorously interrogated and tortured by the powerful Revolutionary Guard.
While he was imprisoned, his wife Farnez (Salma Hayek) faced an uncertain wait. She began to question the loyalty of their long time house maid Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo, from The House Of Sand And Fog, etc), whose son Morteza (Navid Navid) embraced the revolution with fervour and seemed hell bent on punishing the Amins for being rich and successful. He even manipulates her into turning on the Amins, who have provided her with a comfortable lifestyle. One scene shows Farnez forced to stand by and watch as thugs, led by Morteza, invade her home and strip it of valuable paintings and steal her jewelry. These scenes are deliberately reminiscent of how the Nazis treated Jewish families in Europe in the 1930s. Thankfully their teenage son Parviz (Jamie Ward) has already left to study in America, so is spared the torment his parents face.
When Isaac is released from prison he realises that he needs to get his family out of Iran. Those scenes where he leaves Iran should have been suffused with unbearable tension, but they become melodramatic and a little cliched. Their escape from Iran should have been the main thrust of the narrative. But rather this idea occupies about ten minutes of the film and lacks the requisite dramatic tension. This is probably the fault of first time screenwriter Hanna Weg, who has adapted Sofer’s novel for the screen. The film is uneven, both in tone and pacing, and seems a little simplistic in its depiction of complex events. However, some of the best written scenes centre around the heated confrontations between Farnez and Habibeh over their clashing ideologies.
This earnest drama deals with ambitious themes such as religion, intolerance, the rise of radical Islam, persecution and oppression, injustice, the abuse of power, class differences in Iran. But it also exposes the hypocrisy of many Iranians who rose up against the wealthy classes, not out of loyalty to the revolution or the Islam religion, but more out of misguided economic reasons to exact a form of petty revenge on the wealthy class. Somewhat grandiosely, the film is dedicated “to all the victims of persecution.”
Septembers Of Shiraz is something of a change of pace for Australian director Wayne Blair (the feelgood musical drama The Sapphires, etc), but he effectively captures the tumultuous events and chaos that shaped Tehran during this period. While he is clearly not that interested in exploring the politics of the region at the time, he does explore the violence and bloodshed that such an upheaval causes. The torture scenes are quite harrowing, and may remind audiences of Jon Stewart’s recent similarly themed drama Rosewater, which starred Gael Garcia Bernal as a journalist imprisoned for spying in Iran. The film has been superbly shot by fellow Australian cinematographer Warwick Thornton (Samson And Delilah, etc), and his use of handheld cameras gives the material a sense of urgency.
Both Brody and Hayek are miscast though, and their accents waver a little throughout. This is a more physical performance for Brody who suffers a lot as Isaac, and he gets to project a very real sense of despair and anger at what is happening around him. It’s a performance that will remind many of his Oscar winning turn in Roman Polanski’s grim WWII drama The Pianist, although not as effective. Hayek gives a nicely emotional performance as his wife who suffers through a period of uncertainty and fear while trying to hold her family together.
The best performance comes from Aghdashloo, who manages to bring some nuances to her portrayal of a woman who initially believes the revolutionary propaganda spouted by her son, but soon realises that it is based on lies. Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul gives some depth and unexpected layers of compassion to his performance as Mohsen, Isaac’s brutal torturer.
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