“Iranian rock musical” seems like an unlikely new genre. Music itself is largely frowned upon by the Iranian theocracy, and rock music is outright illegal, both to own and to perform. Because of the difficulties director Bahman Ghobadi has had with Iranian authorities over his past films, he’s now chosen to collaborate with Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi (herself arrested and accused of spying in 2009) on a movie informed by the struggles of an artistic underground even more subject to censorship and banning than Ghobadi’s work. The result is No One Knows About Persian Cats, which uses the fictional story of two rogue musicians’ efforts to leave the country as a way to explore the ins and outs of the Iranian rock scene.
Ghobadi’s leads are Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, two non-actors playing “themselves,” and not all that well. Their music is good—it has a dark, moody indie-rock vibe, a little like early Modest Mouse with a Middle Eastern twist—but their acting is so flat that they drain a lot of energy from the movie. Ghobadi tries to compensate by breaking frequently for songs, during which he cuts between the performances and fast-moving montages of life in Tehran. But the sequences play like cheap music videos, and though it’s cool to hear the variety of the Iranian underground music scene (which encompasses heavy metal, blues, folk, hip-hop, and cabaret-pop, among other styles), No One Knows About Persian Cats is a drama largely devoid of, well, drama.
The movie comes to life whenever Hamed Behdad appears, playing a fast-talking hustler who slings bootleg DVDs and lives with his pet birds Rhett Butler, Scarlett O’Hara, and Monica Bellucci. Behdad leads Shaghaghi and Koshanejad through the demimonde of forged passports and speakeasies, and to the rural dairy farms and soundproofed rooftop sheds where the musicians practice in secret. It’s only when Behdad is onscreen that Ghobadi effectively dramatizes Persian Cats’ thorny questions: Whether it’s better to fight or flee, whether a repressive regime forces artists to consort with criminals, and whether some laxly enforced laws are only on the books to give the government an excuse to crack down on non-conformists.