Film review: FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS, (2013)
This is one of the best and most engaging artist biography documentaries I have seen in a season of really great ones. But, to be clear, I live for this type of film more than most. So, I am resigned to having the solo experience. But if I were trying to make some converts this would have been a great choice. The title alone is worth a further investigation, plus the fact that the subject is one of the most well-known Iranian contemporary artists alive today Bahman Mohassess was the darling of the pre-revolutionary Iranian elites and art collectors. His work was provocative, sexual, homoerotic and prolific. He was a wholly engaged outspoken social critic whose work directly responded to world events. He was, acerbic, irreverant and openly gay. Post revolution he found his work banned, and destroyed by a repressive regime which stifled creativity and all that he represented. Mohassess exited Iran and disappeared from sight.
The film begins with a young intrepid Iranian filmmaker living in Europe who searches him out after 40 years of self-imposed exile in Rome. She skillfully insinuates herself into his recclusive life in a modest apartment. He initially resists her inquisitiveness but gradually warms to the idea of being the focus of a documentary - to the point where he begins directing the director of his own biography. This is a brilliant bit of role reversal which becomes like a dance with each partner taking turns taking the lead. The subject/filmmaker dynamic is very much a part of the film and it is engaging and fascinating to see the evolution of that relationship. It makes the whole picture very intimate.
It is hard to imagine a man with such a lively intellect and outspoken personality living such a solitary life. He has an ironic sense of humor and a contagious convulsive laugh which erupts often and tells a story of millions of cigarettes which he now denies himself except when he bums the ocassional one from Mitra, the director. He is up to date on current events, very opionated, and expresses himself with pithy comments worthy of Quentin Crisp. Regarding the atmosphere of tolerance toward homosexuality he found in the west - he declares that he liked it better before when it was more dangerous and forbidden.
The mysterious title of the film is finally revealed to be the title of his favorite painting which hangs in his living room and is one of the few that he has kept and refuses to sell. He destroyed many of his works. Those that did not sell he simply “murdered” (his words). It is a wonderful film about a fascinating character.