No One Knows About Persian Cats is not a movie about cats, but about Iranian (i.e., Persian) musicians.
I really struggled to get into this one for the first hour or so, and even after that my enjoyment of it was quite modest. That’s disappointing, because it’s from the director Bahman Ghobadi, who did Turtles Can Fly, which I liked quite a bit. That’s a really emotionally powerful movie; this one never reached me in a way remotely comparable to that.
The subject matter does have the potential to have that kind of impact, as its about people living under the oppressive Islamic government of Iran. But somehow the brutal stuff stays so much in the background for so long that the movie just doesn’t have the kind of ominous feel it should.
The main characters are young people wanting to play the kind of popular western music that doesn’t go over so well with the authorities in Iran. So they play a lot in basements and isolated barns and such. There isn’t that much of a storyline to the movie, but what there is mostly has to do with some of these young people trying to get counterfeit paperwork that will enable them to leave the country to play abroad, either temporarily or as a permanent escape.
A couple of them have just recently been released after a short stint in prison in connection with their music, but in keeping with the overall feel of the movie, they don’t seem very traumatized by it, don’t seem to regard it as all that imperative to avoid going back. It’s more like that’s just an accepted hazard of what they’re doing, and really not that big a deal.
Objectively it’s still pretty harrowing stuff, but very little of it feels that way.
Certainly it’s not like the pervasive oppression of East Germany in The Lives of Others. Is that because present day Iran is a much looser, less efficient totalitarianism where as a fluke you can get nailed, but most people most of the time find angles and cracks in the system where they can do what they want? Or is it because self-censorship resulted in Iran being presented as far less brutal in this movie than it is in real life? (The movie was made in Iran, though evidently outside official channels, with the result being that Ghobadi and one or more of the actors are living abroad, not able to return to their country safely.)
Heavy Metal in Baghdad, though not a movie that I’d rank as a favorite of mine, reached me emotionally a little bit more than this one. Perhaps one could say that’s because that’s a documentary about real people, while this is a work of fiction (though based on real events, with most of the characters played by people who are struggling to be musicians in Iran in real life as well). But I doubt that’s it. If anything, my experience is the opposite, that documentaries don’t hit me as hard as well done fiction. The aforementioned Turtles Can Fly, for instance, is not a documentary.
I mostly just thought it was dull watching these folks riding their motorbikes around Tehran, setting up small scale illegal concerts and such.
The scenes where they’re trying to arrange fake documents, and they’re being given lists of prices (it’s really, really inexpensive to get fake documents to be allowed to go to Afghanistan) is somewhat entertaining. The wheeler-dealer hustler guy who’s trying to help out the main characters is kind of cool. For that matter, the main characters themselves are likable enough.
I also would say the music isn’t as unappealing as I would have anticipated. There are actually a fair number of scenes where the musicians play most or all of one of their songs, and while I’m certainly not eager to rush out and buy a CD of it, some of the songs actually aren’t that bad. And knowing it’s based on a true story, and these are actual musicians, I enjoyed and respected the fact that their music means so much to them, that they’re willing to take the risks they are because this is what they feel compelled to do with their life. It’s an impressive commitment to their art.
But in the end I just thought No One Knows About Persian Cats was slow, with only a minimal story, and mostly uninvolving.