There's a terrific, crowd-pleasing musical nestled within the Iranian import No One Knows About Persian Cats. The movie won the Audience Award at this year's Miami International Film Festival and has accrued similar honors on the international-festival circuit. But it opens with an ominous title card informing us that it was "based on real events, locations and people," a notice immediately followed by a brief, blurry shot of a bleeding man being wheeled into a hospital. That image quickly evaporates from memory when the film begins, but it will make an unfortunate and misplaced return by its end.
For much of No One Knows About Persian Cats, which was shot on the fly in a scant 17 days without the official sanction of the Iranian government, director Bahman Ghodabi presents an energetic, at times exuberantly comical tale of two indie rock musicians (Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad) trying to find guitarists and drummers to round out their band and then secure the illegal visas and passports they need to perform outside Iran, where their brand of music is illegal.
Their quest hinges on the help of Nadar (Hamed Behdad), a fast-talking promoter and bootlegger of American movies on DVD. Nadar, who has connections to the underworld, listens to the rockers' music and decides to help, introducing them to various musicians from all genres - thrash metal, Persian rap, nightclub crooning - and to a pair of shady businessmen who specialize in forging passports and visas at steep prices.
No One Knows About Persian Cats has a droll sense of humor about the realities of modern-day life in Iran and its endless restrictions (there's a terrific scene in which Nadar talks himself out of a bootlegging charge in front of a stern judge). At times the film is explosively funny: the passport forger rants about the lovey-dovey movies Nadar has been using to bribe bringing him (he only wants to watch action movies with "100 killings and no romance.") The movie has no shortage of memorable characters, such as the heavy-metal guitarist who practices with his band on a remote farm so as not to annoy his neighbors but whose ear-splitting music so upsets the cows that they go on a hunger strike and moo vociferously with displeasure.
The film also turns its plentiful musical numbers (all diverse and insanely catchy) into videos depicting the vibrancy of Iran's youth, respectful of their cultural tradition but eager to break free of the restrictions it imposed. The similarities between these young people and American teens are striking and surprising. Unfortunately, Ghodabi doesn't trust his film to convey the message that has already been clearly and entertainingly spelled out, and No One Knows About Persian Cats ends on a sudden note of tragedy that almost ruins the exuberant spirit of everything that has preceded it.
The movie falls into the trap of underlining the obvious, and the heavy-handed finale is so completely at odds with the rest of the film that you're baffled why it wasn't left on the cutting-room floor. The best way to enjoy No One Knows About Persian Cats is to leave five minutes before it's over and conjure your own ending: Whatever you dream up is better than the one the movie gives you.
No One Knows About Persian Cats (**1/2 out of ****) opens at the Cosford Cinema and Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday May 21.