Although gay Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses may not be familiar to most, his tale is one of national renown, textbook cynicism, outrage, and reclusiveness. The abstract painter and sculptor was celebrated in the higher echelons of Iranian society until he left the country more than 30 years ago after his work began to be censored by an oppressive government. After decades of living a quiet life in Italy—and presumed dead by some—the artist/filmmaker Mitra Farahani locates Mohasses living in a small hotel in Rome.
In Farahani's documentary, Fifi Howls From Happiness, the hermit is eager to share his memories of the past and opinions of the present, discussing both like a filter-less, unrepentant grandfather with no regard for contemporary political correctness. Ever the artist, Mohasses gives Farahani tips about video and sound composition for her film even as they shoot it. As the pair look through catalogues of his old work, Farahani asks where they all are now, and Mohasses reveals that he personally destroyed many of them as a form of protest to what was going on in the world, practicing the ultimate form of artistic license.
Mohasses seems, at times, as passionate as he was in his youth, but other times his age and world-weariness eclipse his fervor. He shows off pieces he made in the wake of world tragedies including the Gulf War and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but he compares himself to a preacher alone in the desert: “It doesn’t make a difference—it never will.”
What Mohasses truly seems to need are like-minded conversationalists. When Farahani is faced with the difficulty of finding someone to commission a work from the artist so she can include him and his creative process in the film, she finds two brother-artists from Dubai who are longtime fans and who agree to fly out and meet their idol and pay him to complete a work for them.
The change in Mohasses is immediately noticeable. Between his smoker’s chuckle— reminiscent of an old car engine turning over on a winter morning—his banter shifts. In the film, he asks to borrow a cigarette, and the space he used to fill with bitterness and resentment, is now peppered with light-hearted, entertaining anecdotes.
Mohasses’s antiquated opinions extend to some of his views on homosexuality. He dislikes the idea of gay marriage and claims that homosexuality’s beauty was “in the prohibition.” Stating that the illegality and social stigma of it is what fostered the brilliant minds of Da Vinci, Botticelli and the like.
The subject, as in any good documentary, makes the film. With his rough tongue and poet’s finesse, he’s likeable at times and detestable at others—but always a bit endearing. The dour passion of his youth that transformed into the cynicism of his later years creates a fascinating storyline to follow, with the artist’s ability to both create and destroy his own masterpieces at the forefront.
Fifi Howls From Happiness opens in select theaters Aug. 8. Watch the trailer below: