There might be some way to depict the Iranian Revolution on film, but Septembers of Shiraz is not it.
This drama about a Jewish family persecuted in Iran once Islamic fundamentalists seized power of the government simplifies too much, failing to provide much of the necessary context required to understand the motivations of its characters. Instead of illuminating, the film languishes—spending so much time on scenes of Adrien Brody being tortured and Salma Hayek-Pinault crying that it fails to make any kind of point aside from “The Iranian Revolution was bad, and most Iranian Muslims involved were hypocrites.”
And, well, that’s a point that tons of American action movies already de facto give us in their depictions of the Middle East. Academy Award winner Argo did it, and Jon Stewart’s very underrated Rosewater did it, and both of them had more nuance and subtlety than Septembers of Shiraz.
The film, “based on true events” and the 2007 novel by Dalia Sofer, centers on a secular Jewish family living in Tehran in August 1979: Husband Isaac (Brody), a jeweler, and wife Farnez (Hayek), a writer-turned-housewife. They are educated and wealthy, sending their teenage son to a boarding school in the United States, but it’s clear that the country is changing around them. The Iranian Revolution is becoming more violent as Islamic fundamentalist factions led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrestle power away from their socialist, intellectual, and student allies, and the country is becoming more conservative and oppressed by the day.
Why did the Revolution happen? What caused so many Iranians to push against the influence of the West, especially the United States? What brought about their antagonism toward Iran’s Jewish population, which had a presence in the country for thousands of years? Septembers of Shiraz doesn’t address any of those questions, even though it wants to weave a story from the answers. Within the first few minutes, Isaac and Farnez go from having a fancy party blasting disco to a news report about how the Revolutionary Guard is running Tehran. “Our country’s coming apart at the seams!” Isaac yells, and that’s about all the political-upheaval explanation we get.
Instead, the film goes heavy on the torture and mind games that Isaac and Farnez are subjected to: Isaac is arrested and made to undergo vigorous questioning and beatings about alleged ties with the Israeli government and the former Shah of Iran, while Farnez turns to their housekeeper, Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo) for comfort, even though Habibeh’s son Morteza (Navid Navid) has become a member of the Revolutionary Guard and is trying to turn his mother against the family. “When I listen to him, he makes a lot of sense,” Habibeh tells Farnez. “Why should some people live like kings, and the rest like rats? … What if we want our mullahs to rule us?”
The conversations between Farnez and Habibeh, which address issues of religion, labor, and class, are the best parts of Septembers of Shiraz, and come closest to acknowledging some of the major motivations of the Iranian Revolution. Farnez is elitist, and Habibeh is disenfranchised, and the reality is that they can’t see eye-to-eye on everything—that’s not how capitalism works. But Hayek-Pinault is her best when she’s coldly pointing out how much she and her husband have done for Habibeh and her son, and Aghdashloo has always been good at projecting insidious shame and resentment.
Brody, though, is stuck in a torture storyline that feels both exploitative and underdeveloped. He gets a good scene toward the end of the film when he faces off against Morteza, questioning him about why he’s wronged their family, but that’s about all Brody gets to do.
There are too many unanswered questions in Septembers of Shiraz, and too many distractions. Goofy things like Brody and Hayek-Pinault’s failed Iranian accents (both sound like a British Dracula) will take you out of the movie, but so will the sense that an incomplete story is being told—that while Isaac and Farnez certainly doesn’t deserve what happened to them, just like thousands of Iranians didn’t, there was more to the Iranian Revolution than just a bunch of thugs high on power trips, looting houses and abusing strangers.
“They didn’t need a reason,” a character says about how the Revolutionary Guard and the Muslim fundamentalists are bleeding the country. But Septembers of Shiraz tells a disappointingly superficial story to make that point.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs