This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 11, 2013. It is being reposted now that the film is opening in theaters.
Once upon a time, Bahman Mohasses was one of Tehran’s most influential artists. Then he disappeared. It has never been easy for an outspoken gay painter and sculptor to work and live in the Iran capital, under the Shah or the Ayatollah. The rumor is that he destroyed many of his paintings, hopped on a plane and ended up in Italy. Then in 2010, decades later, documentarian Mitra Farahani found him, interviewed him and made Fifi Howls from Happiness.
He did turn out to be in Italy, 79 years old and living in a Roman hotel suite, but Farahani won’t say exactly how she found him. This isn’t Searching for Sugar Man, or any other documentary masquerading as a detective story. Actually, Fifi Howls from Happiness is most successful in what it avoids. Mohasses is a larger-than-life character, who challenges the camera and tries to wrest control of the film. He even issues demands as to how it should be edited, which are sometimes ignored and sometimes tolerated. Yet, unlike the filmmakers of The Dog, Farahani manages to keep him at bay. His pushiness and aggressive charisma is alternately charming and frustrating, but it is always kept under control.
His paintings and sculptures occupy a central position in the film, particularly those that he keeps in his makeshift apartment. Surrealist and eclectic, his style has changed quite a bit over the years. His most recent work seems to be primarily collage, but he’s also held on to a few brash and unsettling paintings from a former period. Faharani spends some time lingering on his images, but not so long as to stumble from a focus on Mohasses’s life to a catalog of his style.
Unfortunately, avoiding clichés and maintaining a sense of balance doesn’t necessarily make for a great film. Faharani has done an excellent job at jumping ahead of all the flawed artist documentaries of recent years, but she hasn’t leaped far enough to reach the best of them. Her grandest attempt at something more involves a ploy she and two artists try to get Mohasses to paint a new work. Inspired by a plot in a Balzac novel, which Faharani relays to the audience via voiceover, her friends convince the great painter that they are prospective buyers. Not only do they commission an enormous canvass, but they try to purchase everything else that he’s kept in his hotel room. The literary tie-in is interesting, but after the initial surprise this device doesn’t actually yield much of interest.
One moment towards the end, however, sticks out. It’s surprising that Mohasses let a filmmaker into his life in the first place, but it becomes even stranger once it becomes clear how sick he is. As the director’s friends successfully convince him to take on their commission, she spends more and more time with him. Then, a couple months after her arrival, he dies. It’s unclear whether anyone was expecting it, but it seems as if it was a surprise. Faharani’s presence, and the way that she portrays this in the film, is a brief moment of perhaps unintentional brilliance. If nothing else, this rare and shocking moment makes Fifi Howls from Happiness entirely worth seeing.
Fifi Hows from Happiness is now playing.