‘Septembers of Shiraz’: TIFF Review

Weird casting and clichéd plotting drag down this ho-hum humanist exercise.

Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek-Pinault star as Iranian Jews endangered by the new regime after the fall of the Shah

Heavy with earnest good intentions but too underpowered and oddly packaged to deliver the emotional gut punch its subject demands, Septembers of Shiraz is a disappointing misfire. Directed by Wayne Blair, this adaptation Dalia Sofer's well-regarded novel stars Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek-Pinault as a Jewish couple living in Tehran who come under unbearable pressure from the Revolutionary Guard soon after the fall of the Shah. Although there are some effective scenes and a palpable ambition to understand the motives of a broad spectrum of characters, it ultimately feels too hedged and slight to attain the upmarket awards contender status to which it clearly aspires.  

The word "human" is used nine times in the press notes for Septembers of Shiraz, 14 if you also count it as a root in the words "humanity," "humane" and "humanitarian." Maybe it's petty to judge a film by its marketing materials, but that repetitiveness seems indicative of the particular brand of warm-fuzzy humanism the film is selling. Devised in such a way as to stress parallels between characters supposedly at odds with one another, and to suggest that there are really no bad people just bad circumstances, it ends up delivering a bland, mushy even-torturers-love-their-children-too message which some viewers might even find offensively facile.

A fairly cursory opening 10 minutes establishes that Isaac Amin (Brody) is as wealthy jeweler who happens to be of Jewish extraction, although there's little evidence that religion plays a big part in his or his wife Farnez's (Hayek-Pinault) life.  

They're first met throwing a lavish farewell party for their teenage son Parviz (Jamie Ward) who's about to go off to boarding school in the United States, although their tween daughter Shirin (Ariana Molkara) will stay behind in Tehran. (The Amin progeny have much more substantial roles in the original novel, but are only really token presences here.) It's never spelled out why exactly they chose not to emigrate as soon as the Ayatollah Khomeini took power a year or ago, but presumably, like Jews in early 1930s Nazi Germany, the scale of the threat hasn't yet become apparent.

That's about to change because beyond the walls of their expensively furnished suburban mansion, the social and political order is changing fast. Isaac is summarily arrested one day and taken off to prison, where a masked inquisitor named Mohsen (Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul) grills him mercilessly, searching for admission that he was Shah loyalist. When Isaac insists that he has no political sympathies, Mohsen resorts to torture, reenacting the cruelty he himself suffered under the old regime's secret police.

Meanwhile, Farnez, a proud woman who's used to a highly privileged lifestyle, struggles to get answers about what's happening to Isaac from the increasingly hostile Revolutionary Guard. Before long they're stripping their Amins' home of possessions, while Isaac's jewelry business is ransacked by the son of their once loyal housekeeper Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a woman whose growing sympathies with the Revolution puts her increasingly at odds with Farnez.

Some of the most sharply scenes in the film are between Aghdashloo and Hayek-Pinault as they negotiate the new terms of their characters' social contract. Used to bossing Habibeh around and patronizing her over her ignorance, Farnez now needs her servant, who may be uneducated but isn't stupid, to gain entry at places like the jail. However, there's a dreary inevitability to the way Hanna Weg's script devises a final rapprochement between the two women, one that parallels the way Isaac, as if by magic, manages to win some sympathy from his jailor.

These contrived symmetries, and the patness of the final endgame which desperately tries to extract tension from a perfectly predictable outcome, wouldn't grate so much if the film weren't so marred by so many poor choices. Director Blair, who demonstrated an effortless flair for comedy with his debut The Sapphires, appears determined to prove he can handle dramatic, high-toned material by draining every ounce of humor from the film. In a similar vein, someone appears to have decided that twitching the camera about nervously would be a surefire guarantee of immediacy or authenticity, and that it would add menace or something to have so many set-ups filmed with bead curtains or windows in the way. Mark Isham's bombastic score is relentlessly on the nose.

In the end, casting is the film's deepest flaw. Even though she is part Lebanese and could credibly pass physically for an Iranian Jew, Hayek apparently didn't put in enough hours with a voice coach to learn how to disguise her Mexican accent, and consequently a certain self-consciousness becalms her performance. Brody is more persuasive, although this rendition of emaciated despair looks a bit recycled from his turn in The Pianist.

Even the Bulgarian locations used are jarringly wrong in every way, from the architectural shapes to the quality of light, which leaves Aghdashloo looking and sounding like the only convincingly Iranian element in the whole package.

 

Production companies: A Millennium Films presentation of a G-Base, Eclectic Pictures production
Cast: Adrien Brody, Salma Hayek-Pinault, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Anthony Azizi, Navid Navid, Ariana Molkara
Director:Wayne Blair
Screenwriter:Hanna Weg, based on the novel 'The Septembers of Shiraz' by Dalia Sofer
Producers: Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Heidi Jo Markel, Hanna Weg, Danielle Robinson, Les Weldon
Executive producers: Adrien Brody, Salma Hayek-Pinault, Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill
Director of photography: Warwick Thornton
Editor: John Scott
Production designer: Annie Beauchamp
Costume designer: Irina Kotcheva
Composer: Mark Isham
Casting: Mariana Ivanova Kotcheva
Sales: Paradigm

No rating, 109 minutes

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