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Movie Review

‘Fifi Howls from Happiness’ a revealing portrait of ‘Persian Picasso’

The documentary looks at artist Bahman Mohassess. Music Box Films/Courtesy of Music Box Films

Bahman Mohassess, who died in obscurity in Rome in 2010 at age 79, has been called the “Persian Picasso.” He might also be called the Persian Francis Bacon, or Salvador Dali, or any number of modernist artists, because his paintings, collages, and sculptures draw on an eclectic range of inspirations. But they have in common a distinctive weirdness, nihilism, and gleeful despair.

In person, as seen in “Fifi Howls From Happiness,” Mitra Farahani’s ambitious and self-reflexive documentary of the artist’s last days, Mohassess enthusiastically acts out those traits. It’s a performance enhanced by his diabolical, phlegm-choked laughter at his own bleakly ironic pronouncements and denunciations of the world in general.

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He has good reason to be cynical and bitter. Despite Olympian disdain, Mohassess expresses Swiftian indignation at the injustices, cruelties, and stupidities of the world. Many of his works respond to specific man-made catastrophes and atrocities, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King and environmental disasters. Far from being didactic, these works penetrate to an essence of tragedy that transcends the specific occasion.

Mohassess has also suffered from the whims of history. A renowned artist in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (excerpts from a 1967 Iranian TV documentary show him at his acerbic best, mocking wealthy patrons for being sycophantic and craven), Mohassess, who was gay, left the theocratic state for Rome. Knowing that the new government would destroy his artwork, especially that commissioned by the deposed shah, he destroyed most of it himself. He shows Farahani page after page of reproductions of his work, some of them uncannily beautiful and disturbing, triumphantly declaring them “dead!” It doesn’t matter, he insists. Posterity and fame mean nothing.

Nonetheless, he has an artist’s ego, and agrees to let Farahani film him in what turns out to be a legacy of sorts. He asserts control over the filmmaking. In voice-over he tells her what epigraphs to put over each of the film’s three chapters, suggesting that she include images of the ocean or of Roman street life to break up the monotony of him sitting on a sofa in his hotel room with the painting of the title — one of his first, which he refuses to part with — hanging over his shoulder. It’s a red figure without hands, its face a gaping void.

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Some intrigue enters the picture when Iranian brothers living in Dubai arrive to commission a new work. And the interaction of Farahani with the master provides a melancholy pas de deux of disillusionment and idealism, underscored by Farahani’s overwrought voice-over narration.

Whatever its virtues and flaws, “Fifi” performs the vital service of acquainting the world with an artist who deserves — despite his own dismissal of such notions — world recognition, if not immortality.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.