All the right stuff
Babak Shokrian's bitter sweet film on the Iranian
May 8, 2003
I have just previewed an opening of America
So Beautiful in Paris UGC Cinema. To this date, rarely
has any Iranian movie caught my attention or moved me as a truly
cinematographic experience. Babak Shokrian's directorial début
has all the ingrediants that make up both an entertaining and thought-provoking
I could not help sit through the whole film hoping to
see more. This is what I call a movie that is for the first time,
in the iranian category with a comprehensive dialogue and a good
plot supported by excellent professional actors-- far from the great
Abbas Kiarostami and his metaphorical abstractions accessible only
to the cultural elite.
movie tries to draw a picture of a generation which shortly before
and shortly after the revolution had to struggle to survive. Shokrian's
early film influences from Scorcese and Elia Kazan are apparent,
in some scenes and particularily in authentic recreation and setting
of LA in the 70's and Disco years.
The film spans over the 444-days during which 52 American
diplomats were taken hostage in the US Embassy in Teheran. Excerpts
of radio news, and TV images of the Revolution and the fall of the
Shah sets the historical and political context.
So Beautiful fortunately avoids cliches which could have
been easily the case in trying to draw a strict line between Good
and Bad characters. The racial comments made by a middle-aged bartender
(an attentive ear allows you to hear her pronounce Iran "Eye
Ran" and Iranian as it should be, that is "ee-raani-ans")
is rooted in lack of education and social standards, and constant
news reels showing the American hostages humiliated and hostile
revolutionaries shouting "America Go Home".
The same hateful looks also appear when Houshang, having met Lucy
(Diane Gaidry) an American bartender who works in Sahmi's (Houshang
Touzie) Disco, joins her at her party flat. Unlike Lucy, the other
young people give Houshang angry looks as they hear more news on
the hostages being badly treated in Tehran.
The movie does not try to say who is right or who is wrong but simply
shows those who are caught in between political rivalries that surpass
them and contrast their more down to earth realities. Ironically
it is in trying to fulfill their American Dream that the protagonists
are actually confronted with the same prejudices -- not to say racism
-- for which they left their own country in the first palce.
The sad if not tragic aspect of their predicament lays in the fact
that the protagonists mostly come from educated families; they are
intelligent and cultured -- and probably more qualified for the
jobs they have. One wanted to be a doctor, then an actor and ended
up as a taxi driver. Another has a grocery shop.
Maryam, Hamid, Parviz, are all perfectly in phase with
the American language, culture and mindset and although attached
to their roots they are hoping for a better future but in realistic
terms and in that are certainly the most stable and positive characters
in the movie.
That's not the case for Houshang. Strangely, by holding
on strongly to his dream, Houshang is probably the most American
of all the characters in the movie. He is down to earth and entrepreunial.
He tries to convince people to believe in his project, but he is
constantly faced with a cultural wall he cannot climb and doesn't
seem to grasp the consenquences of events in Iran on his life in
The cultural gap is also shown among Iranians themselves. At one
point Parviz the cab driver is trying to make a deal at the grocery
is interrupted by a younger Iranian with glossy hair and dressed
up like a gigolo who hides his real name Darius with a nickname
"Danny Disco", only to be reminded in a humourous dialogue
that his birth name is that of one of Persia's Greatest Emperors,
without whom he would not be who he was.
The scene is quite representative of the educational standards
which were forced upon the last Iranian generation. They were mostly
sons or daughters of doctors, engineers or any other middle-class
family (thanks to the Shahs educational programs and financial support
to the most rewarding students who once sent to the US became politicised
and came back as revolutionaries to topple the regime). They could
not always live up to the same ambitions of their parents. This
led to a cultural gap after the 1979 revolution and not quite been
This is shown in a wonderful and tense scene in a Persian restaurant,
where young friends realize they belong to a lost generation. Not
quite Iranian and not quite American, it ends in a fight because
of a particularily jealous husband who refuses to see his wife dance
with another man and the whole group is kicked out of the restaurant.
As Houshang wants to make his dream come true by building a disco
on the advice of an unscrupulous Sahmi -- a "second class godfather"
character played excellently by Houshang Touzie. He finds himself
lured into stealing money from his own cousin's grocery. On the
other hand Sahmi is also luring the Shah's ex ministers and generals
into making them believe that with their money he is preparing a
counter coup against the mollahs.
The older generation truly comes across through an unflattering
and rather comic portrait -- some of them seem to come straight
out of Pezeshkzad's Dear Uncle Napoleon, which Babak describes
as virtually mad characters who have been "frozen in time"
and that their way of thinking does not allow evolution or critical
The director certainly has a true point here and I share it. However
from a chronological point of view he falls into a minor trap and
that is that most of these generals or ex ministers were in power
shortly before the fall of the imperial regime and many had either
fled, or executed. Some may have turned mad after having been tortured
by the IRI, but the image depicted in the film is more closer to
a retired generation still sticking to a lifestyle long gone. They
provide comic relief in a film which has many tense moments.
The most interesting aspect of Shokrian's first feature film is
that you forget the Iranian connotation of the story. It is present,
you are reminded of events several times and cannot look through
it without remembering personal souveniers. However it stays first
and foremost a movie, which you can follow regardless of the political
message or social and national context.
For once I was happily surprised not to feel the heavy chest I
usually get when I go to see Iranian films and feel that some kind
of philosophical or political metophor is going to be pushed down
my throat. Sorry for the comparison, but it has been true even when
it comes to any Western film regarding Iran or related to the Revolution,
such as Betty Mahmoudy's Not Without My Daughter.This is
not the case in America
Also the dual culture alternating the dialogue between both English
and Persian is interesting and even gives to the film a particular
flavor. One of the characters, an Iranian who has arrived in the
US after the death of his father, says Iran is dead for him. "Welcome
to San Francisco," Houshang replies sarcastically.
Anyone familiar to Parviz Sayyad's playboy character in the Uncle
Napoleon series of the late 70's will understand the allusion.
Unlike the characters of Saturday Night Fever, where John
Travolta had his way paved on a red carpet, Houshang and his friends
are desperately trying to get into the disco, but are refused entrance.
This forces them in most cases to avoid direct confrontation, but
increases their feeling of humiliation and frustration. And the
hostage crisis does not help either in calming the brutality of
war mongering Americans.
There is true on-screen chemistry between the actors. They bring
to the surface all the emotional contradictions and love between
old friends, which sometimes flirt with emotionally incestuous feelings.
Canadian Actress Diane Gaidry, Alain De Satti, and Fariborz David
Diann, all create characters with a great deal of depth, sincerity
As much as this film is about us Iranian exiles (at least in LA
but you find similar components in Europe or elsewhere) it is also
an American film in the true sense of the word. The actors share
the same narcissism required for James Deanish characters. This
is especially true for Houshang, but also for the other characters.
So Beautiful is supposed to be about the generation from
the time of the revolution, it is about the Iranians of today. The
set and clothing may be that of the 70's but the questions and preoccupations
which haunt the protagonists are much more in phase with the way
Iranians feel today.
The number of Iranians in California increased many fold after
1979. The majority, contrary to the depiction in the film, were
quite well off. Most were professionals educated in the US or Europe.
They did face difficulties but they were less concerned with following
the American Dream than by reasserting their situation in the US.
The children, however, had to face the contradictions of being
American by birth (this is even more true for those who were half
Iranian), education or upbringing and yet still strongly influenced
by Iranian culture. This new generation is probably even more attached
to Iran and Iranian values than the previous one. The fact that
the director, left Iranas a child in 1971, is also an indication
that proves this point.
I was also quite happy and proud to see Shokrian insist that he
wanted to speak Persian in front of a crowd of French and Iranian
film enthusiasts of all ages.
This film certainly deserves to be shown in schools and universities
as an introduction to the Islamic Revolution and its impact on Iranian
and American communities. It is a historic movie which says more
about the problems faced by our community than any other film.
The scene in the Persian restaurant also allows Shokrian to indirectly
pay a tribute to the older generation of artists who have paved
the road for others in the West such as singer Aref
(I didn't even know he was still alive and in good shape), Sattar
or the enigmatic looks of the beautiful Shohreh
Agdashlou (who is co-starring in a new film with Ben Kingsley
House of Sand and Fog produced by Dreamworks).
A special credit should go to the female roles of Lucy played by
Diane Gaidry and particularily the natural composition of Attossa
Leoni as Maryam. By all means Shokrian's first work proves to be
visually mature and his carreer and that of his actors deserves
to be followed closely in the years to come.
is... Mamnoon Iranian.com Month
your favorite magazine
this page to your friends