''The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam" is a vanity film refreshingly lacking in vanity.
Seven years in the making, it's a labor of love for first-time director Kayvan Mashayekh, a Houston-raised Iranian-American lawyer who quit his practice to make a movie about the Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1123), the author of ''The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam" and a proto-Renaissance man who placed reason above faith. After Sept. 11, 2001, ''Keeper" was a project no one wanted to finance, but Mashayekh soldiered on, getting enough funding to film in Uzbekistan and to hire Vanessa Redgrave and German movie star Moritz Bleibtreu (''Run, Lola, Run") in small roles.
He got the thing made, in other words. If that has more drama than what ultimately ended up on the screen, ''The Keeper" is still worth attending to. In story structure, performances, pacing, and dialogue, the film's the work of a first-timer. In its deep love for an ancestral culture, it shines.
With the slightly insane overconfidence of a novice, Mashayekh tells two parallel stories, nine centuries apart. In modern-day Houston, an Iranian immigrant family struggles to keep it together as oldest son Nader (Puya Behinaein) lies dying of leukemia. Architect father Mansour (Shahrad Vossoughi) holds his emotions in check and ignores his roots, while preteen son Kamran (Adam Echahly) sits by his brother's hospital bed and soaks up oral history. ''In each immigrant family," read the film's opening titles, ''one person is chosen to keep the memories alive." Kamran is that human recording device.
The story Nader tells him is of Omar Khayyam's youth and adulthood in Persia, where the young mathematics adept grows into a celebrated astronomer (Bruno Lastra) -- he calculated the correct length of the year to the sixth decimal place -- who retains his intellectual independence in a time of warring factions. Omar is the protege of the Machiavellian Imam Muaffak (Rade Serbedzija, ''Snatch") but flowers under the wing of the Malik-Shah (Bleibtreu), an enlightened Seljuk ruler who builds him an observatory while holding off invasions by Byzantines, Crusaders, and upstart Muslims.
Much of ''The Keeper" has to do with Omar's forbidden love for his childhood friend, a slave girl named Darya (Marie Espinosa), and his rivalry with warrior's son Hassan (Christopher Simpson), who adopts a fanatical strand of Islam. In this way, the movie debates the variables of tolerance and faith in a culture most Americans see as monolithic.
It's probably the only subtle thing about ''The Keeper," which in the playing has the bland gloss of a Classics Illustrated comic book. That United Nations cast, the soap-opera dialogue (''Do not ruin your future," Omar's mother says of Darya; ''She is my future," he responds), the synthetic score -- these would seem to relegate the film to the back of the video-store shelves.
Yet ''The Keeper" prompts one's interest and respect even before Kamran runs away from Houston to find a rare edition of Khayyam's ''Rubiyat" and somehow ends up in Redgrave's living room in England. The actress gives her role a gentle inquisitiveness that's shared by the film as a whole, and Mashayekh makes the most of the rarely filmed Uzbekistan locations, including some gorgeous palaces and courtyards. He has delivered a personal epic: overloaded, clumsy, yet with honest and honorable intent in every frame. ''It wasn't Omar's poetry that made him famous," says Kamran's Iranian grandfather (Darrius Iranejat) toward the end of the film, ''It was the poetry of his life." ''The Keeper" passes those rhythms along.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.