“Of course I am a historic figure. And this doesn’t mean I fart higher than my ass.”
Prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Bahman Mohassess towered over the tumultuous Persian art scene. Shortly after the Ayatollah seized power, Mohassess vanished, retreating in a self-imposed exile to a modest hotel room in the “slimy, vast uterus” of Rome, to use his soundbite-friendly words. In his heyday, he crafted dozens of sculptures and paintings that harshly criticized the regime of the dictatorial Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and attracted controversy to match. His works, alternately grotesque and gorgeous, denounced authoritarian rule with a white-hot fury that frequently provoked the government to deface or destroy his pieces. (Though Fifi Howls From Happiness director Mitra Farahani, in the interest of fairness, includes a scene in which a political official provides a cockamamie explanation as to how one sculpture clearly just happened to fall over and break.) Political censorship was only one motivating factor of Mohassess’ reclusion, however. Farahani flits through a slideshow series of pieces Mohassess laid waste to himself, with a voiceover from the artist describing them as “deceased.” In fits of pessimistic rage at a world that rejected him both as an ideological dissident and a gay man, he obliterated what should’ve been his legacy—which has ironically made his remaining pieces all the more precious; Farahani shows one of them going to auction with a price tag around half a million dollars. The hasty montage of dead art only lasts a minute, but it says everything viewers need to know: His creations weren’t just alive. They were an essential component of his life.
But Farahani’s elegiac documentary takes far more interest in Mohassess the man than Mohassess the artist. Instead of approaching his pieces with an art-history major’s critical eye, she uses them to contextualize his tempestuous mental state. Farahani makes it clear that she has no intention of tracing a misunderstood artiste’s path to redemption. Her narration states, “I will not tell you how I found him, but I will show you how I penetrated his room.” Searching For Sugar Man this isn’t: For the most part, the film is content to be a rudimentary character study, which is fine, since Farahani has located a singular character in Mohassess. He’s the sort of man who can sputter a diatribe on the brutish injustice of man one moment, and break into a fit of raspy, smoke-choked cackling at one of his own half-jokes the next. “Colorful” doesn’t begin to do his eccentricity justice. He follows up his previous memorable description of Rome by declaring it “a city whose population squirms in an eternal coitus, whose alleys are stained with the sperm of bygone centuries.” During an interview segment, he cuts Farahani off as she suggests that political suppression and the crucial ephemerality of art compelled him to destroy so much of his own. “Yes, of course that is all part of it,” he says, “but analyzing everything in life is stupid.” Decades of injustice and personal hardship have done nothing to dampen his rakish joie de vivre. Farahani doesn’t get in her own way when illustrating that. Pointing the camera at Mohassess and letting it roll is more than enough.
But perhaps the most unusual aspect of this documentary is the spirit of collaboration running through it. Mohassess doesn’t hesitate to backseat-direct, instructing Farahani to use a wide-angle frame in one instance, and to combine his voiceover with footage of the sea in another. He claims a rare degree of agency in his own portrayal on film, and conveys no compunction at wresting control from Farahani, either. He explains early on, “I really don’t understand what this film you’re making about me is all about. If it’s a film about a subject, I must know what the role it is that I am to play.” In working with Farahani, as opposed to the traditional documentarian-subject disconnect shown in most docs, he actively shapes his own portrayal.
Fifi’s only major shortcoming is the visual indifference that hobbles many of Farahani’s shots. She frequently lingers on images far past the point of letting a moment land. But demanding she tighten up her editing feels like an inconsequential request in the face of a portrayal this thunderously personal. Oozing volatile magnetism like Ai Weiwei, Mohassess ought to be the historic figure the epigram above suggests. This film is a promising first step to getting him there.