Tuesday, April 26, 2016

SFIFF ‘16: Radio Dreams

Pars Radio is sort of like a Farsi-language WKRP, but more existential. On most days, the esteemed literary-émigré program-director Hamid Royani has carte blanche to present the sort of elite broadcasts for the Bay Area Iranian-American community that interest him. However, this is not an ordinary day. Metallica will be coming to Pars to jam with the Afghan rock band Kabul Dreams, whose cause they have championed. The eccentric station owner’s business-minded daughter Maral refuses to let them squander this commercial opportunity. This inevitably leads to conflict in Babak Jalali’s Radio Dreams (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Yes, Metallica is coming, but their “people” were never very clear about when. That generates even more stress and uncertainty for the Pars staff. While there does seem like there is a Beckett-like “Waiting for Metallica” element to the film, it should be admitted up-front as a not very spoilery spoiler that the good sport Lars Ulrich does indeed show up in advance of the rest of the band and do right by the musicians of the real life Kabul Dreams. As a result, Radio Dreams might be the most commercial quietly observational Farsi dramedy since who knows when.

The real conflict in the film is the veritable fight for the station’s soul and financial health waged by Royani and Maral. He continues to program poetry, short story readings, and naval gazing essays in the worst tradition of NPR with perverse determination, while the latter would like to pay the bills. As everyone waits for the two bands to arrive, the Pars broadcasts seesaw between his low key classiness and the jarringly brash commercials paid for by her brand new sponsors.

Until the bands start to jam, the film is nearly as soft-spoken as one of Royani’s poetry recitals. However, he is an extraordinarily compelling figure to watch on screen. Played by Mohsen Namjoo (often referred to as “the Bob Dylan of Iran”), Royani radiates sad dignity. He has no problem with Metallica or Kabul Dreams, mind you, but interviewing the reigning Iranian American beauty queen clearly rubs him the wrong way.

As Maral, Boshra Dastournezhad goes toe-to-toe with Namjoo, never giving any ground. She certainly has presence and quite a withering stare. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the passive station personnel are largely overshadowed by the intensity of these two polar opposites. However, Ulrich could earn quite a few Farsi-speaking fans for Metallica with his energizing appearance.

Jalali’s approach might almost be too reserved for his own good, but the fatalistic vibe he nurtures is unusually distinctive. Indeed, it is an unflaggingly literate and gently ironic film. Recommended for patrons of Iranian diasporic cinema and the top one percent of Metallica fans, Radio Dreams screens this Thursday (4/28) and Friday (4/29), as part of this year’s SFIFF.