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Movie Review

No One Knows About Persian Cats

Iranian kids play rock in a hard place

Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad play Iranian musicians who keep on rocking in defiance of the government. Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad play Iranian musicians who keep on rocking in defiance of the government. (IFC Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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How do I get you to go see “No One Knows About Persian Cats’’? In a culture where all we can talk about is Robert Downey Jr.’s metallic cool, where Hollywood extrudes a new obscenely expensive comic book fantasy every week, how can I sell you on a tiny, wonderful movie about Iranian rock ’n’ rollers? By telling you it’s this year’s “Once,’’ only with the threat of arrest hanging over every musical number? By explaining how much the kids in this film have in common with you and me, except for the freedoms we never think about?

Whatever the characters in “Persian Cats’’ are, they’re not political, or don’t want to be. It’s not their fault that plugging in an electric guitar or singing an indie-rock ballad in English is a crime against the theocracy. Director Bahman Ghobadi (“Turtles Can Fly,’’ “Half Moon’’) and co-writers Hossein M. Abkenar and Roxana Saberi have lightly fictionalized their tale from “real events, locations, and people,’’ which is to imply this might have been a documentary if that wouldn’t land a lot of people in jail. The movie still offers a detailed portrait of slacker Iranian youth who only want to say and play what’s in their hearts.

At the center are Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), a young couple and performing duo who hope to score visas so they can play a concert in London. Ashkan is fresh out of jail for unspecified musical crimes, but it hasn’t affected his natural optimism. Negar is the worrier, her horn-rim glasses framing beautiful, bleak eyes. She writes songs that wouldn’t sound out of place in a depressive off-campus coffeehouse.

The two need a fixer and back-up musicians, and both they and the movie are lucky to find Nader (Hamed Behdad), a motor-mouthed scene-stealer who claims to know everybody who’s anybody. He sets them up with a wizened Mr. Big who’ll sell them papers ($4,000 for an Iranian passport, $26,000 for a US one) and he motorcycles the couple around greater Tehran to hear different bands rehearsing. In the process, “Persian Cats’’ delivers a broad sampler of modern Iranian pop music, much of it inspired by the West and therefore criminal to a regime that faces East.

Over and over, the movie stops in its tracks to listen to musicians play, offering witness to their travails and ingenuity. A rock group has to wait until the downstairs neighbor leaves, since he tends to call the cops. A heavy-metal quartet can only play in a cow shed in the country (the farmer grouses that his cows have stopped giving milk), running the risk of hepatitis. We hear protest songs, modern jazz, traditional Persian pop, and one amazing torch singer — an Iranian Amy Winehouse — whose face remains out of focus and anonymous. If you sing this fine, you do the time.

These people are the lucky ones, though: college-educated, upper-middle-class bohemians, some of whom have money socked away in Europe. Ghobadi has focused on the have-nots in previous films, but he’s saying even the haves are up against it now. Whenever a band plays in “Persian Cats,’’ the director treats us to a fast, vibrant montage of Iranian faces and street scenes — as if to say, look, this is who we really are — and he caps the film with a defiant Farsi rap song called “Wake Up God’’ atop an unfinished skyscraper, its lyrics calling the people to a new kind of prayer.

One interesting touch: The movie refuses to show us the oppressors. They’re heard on the soundtrack, and their hands are seen snaking into the frame to deprive the characters of their rights (and, in one awful scene, their dog). But when Nader is called in to account for his 1,800 bootlegged DVDs (I bet “Iron Man’’ is in there) and fast-talks his way out of 75 lashes, the policeman remains off screen. To depict the enemy is to give him power.

In its final scenes, “Persian Cats’’ turns heavy-handed, and you can feel the director forcing home the message that his dazzling soundtrack has already conveyed with ease. That message is exquisitely simple: Hear us. Please: Hear us. If you can’t make it to a theater showing the film, it’s also currently available via your TV’s On Demand menu. You can’t know about these Persian hepcats unless you listen.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS

Directed by: Bahman Ghobadi

Written by: Ghobadi, Hossein M. Abkenar, Roxana Saberi

Starring: Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 107 minutes

Unrated (as PG: brief violence)

In Persian, with subtitles

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