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With her breakthrough documentary, Mitra Farahani paints her portrait with a virtuoso’s precision — not an easy task given the complexity of her subject.

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That Iranian director Mitra Farahani would choose enigmatic and provocative artist Bahman Mohasses as the subject for her breakthrough documentary, Fifi Howls from Happiness, isn’t the surprising in the least. In 2006, Farahani released Behjat Sadr: Time Suspended, a profile on Iranian painter and pioneer for women's arts Behjat Sadr. And like Mohasses, Farahani has drawn the ire of the Iranian government for her politically charged artistic endeavors, even serving some jail time in 2009.

Her fascination with Mohasses — an off-color Iranian painter often dubbed the Persian Picasso — would seemingly stem from both her affinity for art history and her political temperament. It doesn’t hurt, however, that Mohasses is a remarkably captivating individual. His works are uniquely abstract and provocative in nature, yet the majority of his art was destroyed — or “deceased,” as he put it — either by the Iranian government or by Mohasses himself. As a result, few traces of his work remain, and those that do are seen as invaluable to the Iranian art-collecting community. Political censorship and his own homosexuality caused Mohasses to flee pre-revolution Iran for a life of seclusion in Rome, and his whereabouts were virtually unknown up until the filming of Farahani’s documentary.

With Fifi Howls from Happiness, Farahani paints her portrait with a virtuoso’s precision — not an easy task given the complexity of her subject. With the majority of the film set in a modest Roman hotel room in which the chain-smoking, heartily laughing Mohasses had been living, Farahani befriends this seemingly despondent and aloof (yet eccentrically sociable) elderly man through her affable interview techniques, offering a glimpse of Mohasses as an individual, not just a painter.

She also has a refined and confident approach to her craft, embedding just the right amount of idiosyncrasy into the presentation. Her editing, while never exceedingly flashy, often serves as an unconventional visual companion to the dialogue through a beguiling mix of long shots, quick cuts, urban commotion and images of serenity. But her abstract techniques never distract from the crux of the film, despite their unorthodoxy.

Like any documentarian should, Farahani opts to show us — not tell us — Mohasses’ story. In fact, much of the framing of his character (and even the actual film) is done by Mohasses himself, who has his own ideas of how a scene should look or feel, and Farahani often obliges. Even so, the only true remnants of a plot aren’t unveiled until the film’s final act, in which a pair of art collectors commission Mohasses to create a new work. As developments unfold, we see a different side of the artist — one that had been hinted at previously in the film — leading up to its poignant and oddly life-affirming climax.

Fifi Howls from Happiness is at times funny, other times poetic, yet it’s always supremely engaging. In some ways, it almost feels like the consummate documentary, shedding light on an unexplored subject and doing so with an informative grace. Toward the beginning of the film, before we are even introduced to Mohasses, Farahani says, “I won’t tell you how I found him. But you shall learn how I penetrated this room.” In this single sound bite, we are shown the entire essence of the film — a blueprinted canvas on which Mohasses fills the gaps.

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