You wouldn’t think it to look at this fiery old man with the smoker’s laugh and a mischievous glint in his eyes, but he’s a major Iranian artist: Bahman Mohassess, an openly gay sculptor and painter who’s lived in self-imposed exile in Italy since the start of the Islamic Revolution. In her stunningly multifaceted documentary, filmmaker Mitra Farahani tracks down Mohassess to the hotel room he’s rented for nearly four decades, ostensibly to check in on the man who defiantly challenged his home country’s social norms. But she quickly gets in deeper than she anticipates, becoming, by turns, his confessor, his cigarette provider and his go-between to commission one last masterful painting.
You might actually say the documentary itself is Mohassess’s final canvas, so infused it becomes with his alternately infuriating and infectious personality. He longs for the days when homosexuality was an entirely outlawed lifestyle; the struggle for marriage equality is to him “appalling.” But every time you’re ready to write him off as an old crank, Farahani complicates the portrait. The sequence where Mohassess explains his undying attachment to one of his own paintings—“Fifi,” a misshapen woman with a black hole where her face should be—is especially moving given that he cavalierly destroyed much of his work just before leaving Iran.
The film rarely leaves the subject’s Rome apartment, yet it never feels static. Farahani treats the locale as a microcosmos in which Mohassess holds court—the outspoken artist relishing what will prove to be, in its own surprising and deeply affecting way, a triumphant last hurrah.
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