Kayvan Mashayekh’s debut feature The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyám risks being overshadowed by its troubled production history. Mashayekh, an Iranian expat and former criminal defense lawyer from Houston, Texas, was prepared to shoot the film in late 2001. He traveled to Morocco to scout locations on September 10th of that year, unaware that the next day’s events would foster a vitriolic paranoia in the United States, resulting in the total withdrawal of his financial backing and the near-complete destruction of his artistic aspirations. Despite these setbacks, Mashayekh persisted, financing his endeavor through both new backers and personal collateral.
The Keeper finally comes to us, then, wrapped in hand-woven shawls of struggle and perseverance that, in conjunction with its subject matter and primarily Middle Eastern locale, threatens an outcome unfortunately oft-achieved in cinema: being one of those deceptively substantive moving picture offerings (sacrifices, really) that do little more than flatter many moviegoers’ liberal-guilt slathered sense of self. As it turns out, The Keeper quite admirably sidesteps such simplistic politicization. Speaking as one who viewed the film from a place of relative ignorance, I can attest to the fact that it cultivates curiosity as opposed to self-centered complacency. Its aural/visual interplay (like a child’s picture book come to life) is emotionally accessible rather than prejudicially palatable; the sights and sounds stimulate thought, breeding interest and inquisitiveness.
At its best, The Keeper conveys a wonder and insight akin to its mathematician title character’s (Bruno Lastra) most famous creation—a lyrical collection of quatrains known as The Rubáiyát. In his preface to the English translation of The Rubáiyát, scholar Edward FitzGerald notes that little is known about Omar Khayyám’s life beyond cursory details. A tent-maker’s son, Khayyám was tutored by the wise man Imám Mowaffak under whom he honed his skills in mathematics and astronomy. His great proficiency in both subjects found fullest expression during the time he spent as an advisor to the Seljuk sultan Malik Shah: most notable among Khayyám’s efforts during this period was a complete overhaul and reform of the Muslim calendar. One of Khayyám’s contemporaries and acquaintances was Hasan Ben Sabbáh, also a student of Imám Mowaffak, though one bound for a vastly different fate. After some youthful wanderings, Hasan became leader of the Persian sect of the Ismailians, a fanatical group prone to terrorist acts and also, according to several histories, credited with originating the term Assassin. Headquartered in the mountain castle of Alamút, Hasan gained a bogeyman’s celebrity, wreaking havoc across the Mohammedan world in the awestruck name of God.
Mashayekh uses this basic account as a backbone onto which he grafts various and sundry cinema standards. Khayyam’s filial and/or brotherly bonds with Malik Shah (Moritz Bleibtreu), Mowaffak (Rade Serbedzija), and Hasan (Christopher Simpson) are emphasized and raised to the level of myth, the characters’ interactions either seen in counterpoint to manmade physical structures or dwarfed by a vast canopy of stars and constellations. Out of whole cloth—perhaps under the romance-infused influence of The Rubáiyát itself—Mashayekh contrives Darya (Marie Espinosa), Khayyám and Hasan’s object of affection, a character who provides the film with several beautifully subtle grace notes and effectively deepens the central theme of generational connection.
Along with an involving, though somewhat shakily handled modern-day framing story (stronger in thematic intent than it is in execution), Mashayekh’s fictional additions are perhaps best viewed in light of a scene from Steven Spielberg’s recent Munich where a translator of the 1001 Arabian Nights speaks of “the importance of narrative to survival.” Like The Keeper‘s young, inquisitive protagonist Kamran (Adam Echahly), Mashayekh is trying to keep the story (not just Khayyám’s, but humankind’s) alive for the present and for posterity. The telling may change, much as a declarative statement is modified through whispers during a game of round robin, but Mashayekh trusts in his tale’s essential resonance, as he also quite obviously trusts in the evocative line of dialogue, spoken by Khayyám, that acts as The Keeper‘s singular and humbling mantra: “The more I learn, the more I realize I do not know.”