Film Review by Kam Williams
Headline: Dancer Pursues His Passion at Risk of Persecution in Inspirational Iranian Drama
Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) had the great misfortune of being born in Iran in the wake of the Islamist coup d’etat of 1979 which meant he was reared under a repressive religious regime which banned all the arts, from painting to poetry to playing music. So, when little Afshin began to exhibit an insatiable interest in dance as a youngster, he was warned by his mother (Nazanin Boniadi) that the activity was banned in accordance with the dictates of the nation’s authoritarian Ayotollah.
Nevertheless, she enrolled her son in the Saba Arts Academy, a fledgling studio secretly operating in the shadows. Under the tutelage of Mr. Mehdi (Makram Khoury), Afshin exhibited early promise while enjoying the freedom to express himself creatively, at least until the fateful day the place was trashed by morality police enforcing of Sharia law.
Fast-forward a decade or so and we find the promising prodigy now attending the University of Teheran but still holding fast to the impractical pipe dream of becoming a professional dancer. Along with a few curious classmates, he forms an underground company which proceeds to practice regularly in an abandoned factory loft.
Elaheh (Freida Pinto) is the only member of the modern dance club with any formal training, having been surreptitiously schooled in technique and choreography by a mother who’d been a prima ballerina prior to the fall of the Shah. Against the ominous backdrop of the burgeoning, student-led Green Revolution of 2009, Elaheh gradually forges the motley crew into a concert-quality troupe.
But between the tense political climate and the official state sanction against public performances, it looks like the idea staging a concert for an audience is out of the question. Thus unfolds Desert Dancer, an uplifting, overcoming-the-odds drama, recounting the real-life dilemma of defiant Afshin Ghaffarian and his equally-rebellious comrades.
The movie marks the absolutely splendid directorial debut of Richard Raymond who has crafted a visually-engaging spectacular with a compelling plotline leading to satisfying resolution. The story seamlessly interweaves inspired dance sequences, organized resistance and a little old-fashioned romance while touching on a litany of themes like love, loyalty, friendship and betrayal.
A must-see biopic poignantly illustrating the indomitability of the human spirit, even in the most oppressive of circumstances.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for mature themes, violence and drug use
Running time: 98 minutes
Distributor: Relativity Media