Wednesday, January 09, 2019

IrFFNY ’19: I Want to Dance

If you dance through the streets of New York, like you are in a vintage MGM musical, you will get a lot of quizzical looks, but people will also appreciate your eccentricity. Not so in Tehran, where the authorities are distinctly unamused by eccentricity and hardliners still maintain a hostile stance towards music in general. However, Bahram Farzaneh has the mother of all earworms stuck in his head and he can share it with others in Bahman Farmanara’s I Want to Dance (trailer here), which screens during the 1st Iranian Film Festival New York.

After a minor accident, Farzaneh can suddenly hear an infectious Persian dance song in his head. It is so vivid, it is like he is picking up a radio signal. The widowed writer with decades-long writer’s block is not concerned by this turn of events. He just wants to dance. If people lean in close enough, they can hear it too.

Suddenly, the morose Farzaneh has a spring in his step. In the past, he might have been alarmed by the unnamed woman—of questionable repute—who runs a rather casual extortion con on him, but the rejuvenated Farzaneh converts her into an unlikely platonic friend. He even agrees to write her story, even though he has no idea what it is, but the creative license he takes is inspiring—and liberating.

There is more whimsy in Dance than you usually find in Persian cinema, but there is still a serious undertone of elegiac sadness. Due to the occasional flashforward, we understand things maybe do not work for Farzaneh as we might hope, but that old cat still takes those lemons and makes lemonade.

Maybe we are making an allegorical reach (if so, why stop now?), but to an outsider, it looks like there are parallels to be drawn between Farzaneh’s big dancing in the street musical number and the Green Revolution protests. One minute everyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing a moment of glorious camaraderie and the next minute, it is like it never happened. Yet, Farzaneh still has the song in his heart.

Nevertheless, the really bittersweet stuff involves Farzaneh’s undefinable relationship with the woman. Reza Kianian and Mahnaz Afshar develop some wonderfully ambiguous, sly bantering chemistry together. Omid Sohrabi’s wistful screenplay avoids most of the standard issue clichés, like “Madame,” Farzaneh’s torch-carrying neighbor lady, who chooses to befriend the mystery lady and get in on their game rather than resenting her as a rival.

I Want to Dance is either considerably sadder or quirkier than this review makes it sound. Somehow, Farmanara balances the vibe on a knife’s edge, vacillating between the two moods. As an added bonus, the big centerpiece musical number is a real showstopper. Frankly, the film addresses all kinds of hot button issues, most notably including police conduct, gender inequalities, and mental health treatment, but it never feels political. Highly recommended, I Want to Dance screens this Saturday (1/12), as part of the 1st IrFFNY, at the IFC Center.