Film review of Septembers of Shiraz

This review of “Septembers of Shiraz” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 14 July 2016

Directed by Wayne Blair; written by Hanna Weg, based on the novel by Dalia Sofer; and starring Adrien Brody, Salma Hayek-Pinault, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ariana Molkara, Alon Aboutboul, Anthony Azizi, Navid Navid, Armin Amiri, Asli Bayram, Wadih Dona, Ovanes Torosyan, Velislav Pavlov and Jamie Ward

The film “Septembers of Shiraz” – “based on true events” – had its genesis as a novel by Iranian-born, New York-based Jewish author Dalia Sofer, who moved to the USA at age 11 after experiencing the 1979 Iranian Revolution first-hand as a child.

Wealthy Jewish diamond and gem merchant Isaac Amin (Adrien Brody) and his wife Farnez (Salma Hayek) have done well in pre-Revolutionary Iran.  When the film opens in August 1979, the Islamic Revolution has been going on for some months and they are about to send their teenage son Parviz to study in the US at a wealthy private boarding school.

The streets of Tehran are full of violent demonstrations, but the secular and apolitical Amin family presumably feels immune from difficulties.  Until one day at work Isaac is “arrested” (or perhaps abducted) by Revolutionary Guards, and taken to prison.  There he is questioned about his numerous trips to Israel (“I have family there; I have never worked for the Israeli government”), but the questioners are mostly interested in his wealth and critical of his “decadent” lifestyle.  Isaac and his family are seen as symbolic of the elite business class, which aided and abetted the regime of the Shah and maintained significant wealth inequality.

The Revolution, in this instance, is portrayed primarily as an Islamic rebellion of the poor and downtrodden working class, rather than concerned with persecuting Jews and other religious minorities.  The film illustrates this issue through a series of increasingly tense conversations between Farnez and the family’s long-time Muslim maid, Habibeh, played with great dignity by US-based Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who left Iran in 1979 after the Revolution. Psychologically, these scenes are the most interesting in the film, although the script never quite develops the themes of social and economic class, humility and gratitude.

While in prison, Isaac is brutally tortured (viewers are warned), and is finally released after agreeing to give the family life savings to his captors.  The final third of the film follows the Amins – Isaac, Farnez and their young daughter – as they attempt to flee for Turkey.

“Septembers of Shiraz” manages to keep up a good pace, with a specially energetic performance from Brody (who is part-Jewish), whose haunted and hunted characterisation recalls his Academy Award for playing the Polish-Jewish Władysław Szpilman in “The Pianist”.

Despite its slick production style, the film is hampered by the challenges of portraying 1979 Iran on a limited budget: it was shot in Bulgaria, which provided a mostly – but not entirely – convincing setting, with a mixed cast of Americans, Iranian exiles, Bulgarians and Israelis.  Australian Aboriginal director Wayne Blair (“The Sapphires”) directs and Warwick Thornton (“Samson and Delilah”) provided the cinematography, particularly effective in the claustrophobic prison scenes.

“Septembers of Shiraz” nicely captures the chaotic times of the early months of the Iranian Revolution, where you could be stripped of physical possessions and thrown into prison, but still left with all of your money intact in the bank.  Despite its many achievements, the film is less successful in making a connection to present day events, especially given the 37 years since the Revolution, and it fails to indicate what happened to the almost 100,000 Jews who also lived in Iran at the time.

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Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody

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