You don’t know his name, but Bahman Mohassess was a titan — a publicly gay, happily misanthropic midcentury Persian art-world powerhouse whose brutally Expressionist paintings ring up six figures at auctions today, and who galvanized his reputation by mysteriously vanishing from Iran for good after the ayatollahs had much of his work destroyed.
The man’s Pynchon-esque absence gets punctured years later by Mitra Farahani, who tracks Mohassess down to a Rome hotel and settles in to shape the chain-smoking septuagenarian’s final testament.
The resulting documentary is never less than addictively fascinating — Mohassess’s story is a heroic torch of individualism battling mad-state ideology, from the Shah to the mullahs, and his autumnal stance toward all things non-Mohassess is hilariously derisive.
But Farahani pushes the saga into even more beautiful territory, sweetly nurturing the old fart and negotiating a large commission from a pair of rich Iranian brothers (one Allen Ginsberg schlubby, the other Jimmy Fallon svelte), as she obediently allows Mohassess to control what goes into her film, and Greek-choruses his final struggle by retelling Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece.”
The lovely ball-&-socket meeting of the two artists’ sensibilities is what makes the doc sing, even if it is a chronicle of a death foretold.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2014