Even though the subject of Fifi Howls from Happiness, exiled Iranian painter Bahman Mohassess, rarely leaves the confines of his Italian hotel room throughout the documentary, filmmaker Mitra Farahani rescues it from becoming a talking-head fest by embracing her creative self as a character and exposing the travails of her own authorship process. And while she’s obviously admiring of Mohassess’s work, she actually turns him from muse to mere subject, from illusive god to wounded recluse, in order to save the film from veering toward a hagiography.
Mohassess is a tempestuous and sharp-tongued old man who refers to Rome as a “slimy, vast uterus,” to Iranians as boot-licking cowards, and to Farahani herself as “lady.” He also gives her highly specific framing and editing directions, as if she were his assistant. The filmmaker, however, never cowers before the master. While he’s surprisingly willing to reveal details about his life, she’s adamant about obscuring them, making sure the film doesn’t become a clean mirror. Sometimes in avowedly sadistic ways, as when she tells us she won’t disclose how she found him (some presumed him dead) and cuts the audio track right after announcing she’ll explain something very important—such as the structure of the film we’re about to see.
If Farahani’s cuts are often sudden, even brutal, she also infuses her voiceover interjections with delicateness. At one point, she thoroughly recounts the plot of a Balzac short story to make an analogy. Her strategy shows not only the incredible tenacity of a filmmaker who refuses to be intimidated by the grandiosity of her subject, but her refusal to accept the capturing of Mohassess’s final days as a sufficiently valuable project. Her hunger for creating a new cinematic object can even feel like a challenge she puts to Mohassess, who seems to be withering from not having worked for so long—for having been forgotten.
The filmmaker’s self-reflexive excursions (at one point she confesses to feign traditional femininity in order to seem more pleasant) echo a kind of authorial honesty rarely seen in cinema. But it never takes away from the grandness of Mohassess’s artworks, which are shown as still images and as part of the hotel room’s décor, and evoke the aesthetic daringness of Louise Bourgeois, George Condo, and Picasso. A sculpture commissioned by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, resembles a beer-bellied Oscar statuette with a microphone for a head and a thick penis hanging without testicles. If that piece is supposed to represent all the strange prophets who will come to save humanity, as Mohassess says, his other works often aim to give form to, in his own words, “the person who is nothing” and, in spite of it, still human.
As the filmmaker remarks, the provocative works also tend toward destruction: They get lost, stolen, shattered, publicly maimed, confiscated, dismantled or destroyed in some other fashion. If not by others, then by Mohassess himself, who snubs the notion of a legacy, posterity, or inheritance. If Fifi Howls from Happiness initially suggests, by default, a relationship of savant and pupil between the cloistered artist and the young filmmaker, that impression gets, fittingly, destroyed as well. For it’s Farahani’s film that lifts Mohassess up like a last-minute gurney, bringing him both the irresistible attention of a sophisticated listener and generous investors from Dubai that commission him to produce something new.