Septembers of Shiraz:Directed by Wayne Blair. Written by Hanna Weg. Photographed by Warwick Thornton. Running time 110 minutes. Rated M. Running time, 110 minutes. Released July 7. Roadshow.
Septembers of Shiraz is set in Teheran in 1979, at the beginning of the popular uprising that toppled the Shah of Persia and saw the establishment of a theocratic state under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Adrien Brody plays Isaac Amin, a gemmologist and the head of a wealthy Jewish family which is virtually oblivious of the revolution that is set to shatter their lives. Married to Farnez (Salma Hayek), an imperious woman who has few scruples about her place in the world, the couple have a teenage son who is about to travel to the United States to attend boarding school, and a younger daughter whose closeted life in Teheran is seemingly no different to that of upper-class young girls who live in the West.
But one day there is a knock on the door and everything changes. Isaac is hooded and taken on the back of a motorbike, to be interrogated in prison by revolutionary guards whose sole aim is to punish him for his wealth and gain access to his money.
At home, through Farnez’s interactions with her long-time servant Habibeh (Shoreh Aghdashloo), a picture emerges of the cultural and political backdrop to the revolution, the haves and have-nots, and the role played by Habibeh’s son Morteza (Navid Navid) in Isaac’s arrest. Morteza who works for Isaac and knows the ins and outs of his business, has joined the revolution. He knows where important documents as well as jewellery is kept, and it is through him that Isaac’s offices are raided, and a letter seized which shows Isaac’s links to the Shah.
Isaac’s interrogation is shockingly vicious and cruel, in the course of which he begins to gain insight into both himself and the revolution, a doorway that contains the possibility of escape for himself and his family.
Septembers of Shiraz has a strong Australian connection. It is directed by Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, 2012) from Dalia Sofer’s highly acclaimed novel, and the cinematography is by writer/director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, 2009). The film’s title is oblique, perhaps reflective of happier days for Isaac and his family, whose own Jewish history is entangled in Persia’s ancient past.
Similarly oblique is the film’s contextualising of political events and causes. Before the 1978-9 revolution, the gap between Iran’s rich and poor was very wide, with power concentrated at the top amongst the Shah and his relatives and friends. These reasons for the uprising are revealed gradually from the inside out, from street scenes with hanging bodies to conversations between the protagonists. What Septembers of Shiraz makes very clear, however, is the capacity of human beings to descend into barbarity regardless of the justice of their cause.
One of the film’s most notable scenes is the dialogue between an exhausted Isaac and his chief interrogator Mohsen (Alon Aboutboul), after the latter has inflicted terrible punishments upon Isaac both personally and through the action of others.
Mohsen tells Isaac that when he was imprisoned by the Shah, he suffered the same tortures that he now inflicts on his victims, to which Isaac replies, ‘Then you are as much a prisoner as I am’.
Few films depicting torture are as painful to watch or as realistic as this flawed but thought-provoking film, which reminds us that all revolutions, whether just or not, can exact a terrible toll on our humanity in the pursuit of victory.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.