I'm not certain that film can effect social change, but when popular culture clashes with extremism, the resulting political tsunami can shift time itself. Add No One Knows About Persian Cats to a very short list of films that demand our attention. The fact that the backdrop of the story is contemporary Tehran is fascinating. The fact that director Bahman Ghobadi illegally filmed in Tehran is phenomenal.
The title of the movie refers to how dogs and cats are banned in public in Iran, as are Western culture, and in particular, secular music. The movie follows Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) and Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) as they piece together an independent rock band in an improbable effort to perform an underground concert and then flee the country with bootleg passports. We witness their journey through the streets, back alleys and underground of Tehran as they meet real-life musicians: drummers, guitarists, even rappers. To blur art and reality even more, many of the artists who perform in the movie have been jailed in real life.
In one of the best performances of this or any other year, Hamed Behdad plays Nader, a mash-up of a manager, fixer and hustler. In one scene, he is accused of possessing Western DVDs, and to watch him con his way out of a punishment of 75 lashes, is terrifying and hilarious, all at once.
As a piece of entertainment, No One Knows About Persian Cats is imperfect. The editing is raw and uneasy. But throughout the film, there remains a tension that reminds us that those brave souls performing on rooftops and in basements are all locked in a bigger cage--their culture. The film has been vilified by the Iranian government, and while its lifeblood is independent music, it is possibly the most politically-charged movie of the year.
The irony is not entirely lost that while No One Knows About Persian Cats struggles to find an audience, the Walt Disney corporation has carpet-bombed the cineplexes with the flat-footed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. In an effort to create a new action franchise, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the Mouse House offer a swashbuckler that's more buckle than a swash.
Unfortunately, they forgot the cardinal rule of a successful action flick: begin with a compelling lead character. Unfortunately, star Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't have the cinematic DNA to inhabit the role of a rogue prince. Up until now, he's been more believable as a reluctant hero (The Day After Tomorrow). And the accents are terrible. Prince of Persia joins a long list of laughable movies set in the Middle East where the cast sounds more like an Oxford production of Gilbert and Sullivan.
No One Knows About Persian Cats is a controversial yet entertaining journey. Prince of Persia is more like a rickety amusement park ride ... and you just want it to stop.