Desert Dancer ends in a round of applause, as much for the dissident performance mounted by Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) on a Parisian stage as for the audience itself, reinforcing their (and, in turn, our) sympathies and belief in their superior moral values. This self-flattering finale is the logical outgrowth of the film’s slavishly Westernized depiction of a country besieged by oppression, even if Ritchie’s impassioned factoring of the political turmoil suffered by the real-life Ghaffarian into the erotics of dance is mesmerizing for suggesting a long-stifled scream finally and heroically being let loose into the world.
In an earlier scene, Afshin and a group of dancers gather in the Iranian desert, away from ever-vigilant gaze of their government’s morality policers, to mount a performance that more subtly, if just as erotically, articulates the frustration of their talents being suppressed. But where the elegance of their contorting bodies suggests the influence of the geniuses of the medium, from Gene Kelly to Rudolf Nureyev, the jejune aesthetics of the film itself abide by the terms of cinematic drivel such as The English Patient and The Kite Runner that portray cultural turmoil in the Middle East with soap-operatic hysteria.
Shot in English so as to ensure maximum reach, Desert Dancer paints the agents of the menacing morality police as pretty boys whose taunts suggest allegiance less to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than to the American high school jock. Political upheaval on the streets of Tehran is sentimentalized in achingly scored slow motion, while the frustrated frisson of Afshin’s romance to Freida Pinto’s drug-addled Elaheh is complemented by the bromides of the non-diegetic cool-kid anthems on the soundtrack (she comes up lonely to his place and tearfully crumbles to the ground after ruining a table setting—all set to Band of Horses’ “The Funeral”). Notwithstanding Afshin’s final dance of resistance, so gut-punching in its purity and concision, the film’s relentless turning of its characters’ experience into platitudes and homilies is served for our too-easy consumption.