'Fifi Howls from Happiness': Film Review

Courtesy of Music Box Films
This elliptical but moving portrait benefits from the memorable personality of its subject.

Mitra Farahani's documentary profiles the controversial Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess, dubbed the "Persian Picasso."

Mitra Farahani's Fifi Howls from Happiness is far from a conventional documentary portrait of an artist, but then again Bahman Mohassess was no conventional artist. Famed as the "Persian Picasso" in his native Iran, the openly gay Mohassess ran afoul of the government with his politically and socially charged paintings and sculptures. He eventually fled the country upon the 1979 Iranian Revolution and settled in Rome, where he spent the last years of his life living in a hotel room. There he was discovered by the filmmaker — she coyly won't tell us how — who allows him to deliver a sort of cinematic eulogy to himself in a series of interviews.

Largely free of contextual information about both Mohasses' life and his art other than not-so-illuminating excerpts from a 1967 television documentary about him, the film is an impressionistic portrait that largely succeeds because of the charisma of its irascible subject. 79 years old and in ill health — his persistent hacking cough clearly the result of the cigarettes he chain-smokes throughout the proceedings — he disdains self-analysis even while attempting to take control of the filmmaking process.

"Make sure you put this in; make it wide angle," he instructs Farahani about shooting one of his pieces, later suggesting that she accompany his voiceover with a poetic shot of the sea.

Most of his artwork has not survived, having been destroyed by the Ayatollah's minions. More perversely, Mohasses himself participated in the process, trashing many of his own pieces for reasons never quite made clear. He narrates a visual montage of much of the lost art, referring to them in darkly comic fashion as "dead" and "deceased."

Dispensing such observations as "I am revolted by everything" and describing his adopted city of Rome as "a slimy vast uterus," the misanthropic artist, frequently cackling with glee at his own remarks, is an arresting figure who nonetheless begins to prove tiresome. But the repetitiveness is thankfully alleviated by the arrival of a pair of Iranian sibling artists based in Dubai, who offer to commission a new work by Mohasses — who hasn't touched a brush in years — as well as offering a generous amount for the few pieces still in his possession. Tragically, just as Mohasses begins preparing to paint again he suddenly dies, in the process providing the film with its conclusion.

Not all of the stylistic devices prove effective. Clips from Luchino Visconti's film The Leopard and a voiceover reading of excerpts from Balzac's story The Unknown Masterpiece are employed to illustrate the film's themes to heavy-handed effect. The visual style is rough-hewn to say the least, and the overlong film would have benefited from some judicious editing.

Nonetheless, Fifi Howls from Happiness — the title stems from one of Mohasses' paintings that he refused to part with — emerges as a provocative portrait of an artist who seemed hell-bent on destroying his own legacy.

Production: Butimar Productions
Director/Director of photography: Mitra Farahani
Producer: Marjaneh Moghimi
Executive producer: Fereydoun Firouz
Editors: Yannick Kergoat, Suzana Pedro
Composer: Tara Kamangar
No rating, 97 min.

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