Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) directs this adaptation of The Septembers of Shiraz, the critically acclaimed 2007 debut novel from Iranian-American author Dalia Sofer. Based in part on Sofer’s own experiences growing up in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, the book chronicles the ordeals faced by an affluent Persian-Jewish family in the wake of the revolution as the privilege they enjoyed under the Shah’s rule comes to an abrupt end and they are targeted by the new regime. Adrien Brody plays Isaac Amin, the family’s introverted patriarch who acquired significant wealth as a gemologist and jeweller to Tehran’s social and political elite, including the Shah’s wife. Salma Hayek is somewhat questionably cast as Isaac’s beautiful, strong-willed wife Farnez, a former writer and mother to the couple’s two children Parviz (Jamie Ward) and Shirin (Ariana Molkara).
Septembers of Shiraz opens with an ostentatious, Bee Gees accompanied tracking shot through the Amin family’s expansive, decadently furnished villa in north Tehran as the couple throw a lavish party for their teenage son Parviz, who is leaving to attend boarding school in the United States. It’s mid-August 1979, mere months after the Shah was forced into exile and the country voted to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty and become an Islamic Republic, but the elegantly attired Amins and their friends sip champagne and listen to Western music as though nothing has changed. Their blissful ignorance is shattered a few days later when members of the recently established Revolutionary Guard arrive at Isaac’s workplace and arrest him for unspecified crimes. Isaac is blindfolded and taken to a secret prison where he is questioned about his frequent trips to Israel (to visit family members, he insists) and possible ties to Mossad.
While a distraught Farnez desperately searches for information on her husband’s whereabouts Isaac is subjected to a series of increasingly brutal interrogations by Mohsen (Alon Aboutboul), a former prisoner and torture victim himself. It soon becomes clear that Mohsen’s cruelty is motivated by a desire for revenge against people like Isaac who enjoyed lives of plenty under the Shah and turned a blind eye to the suffering around them rather than a desire to obtain information about Isaac’s obviously non-existent ties to Israeli intelligence. Back at home conflict brews between Farnez and the family’s long time housekeeper Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo, in the film’s best performance), who begins to sympathize with her son Morteza’s (Navid Navid) revolutionary sentiments and share his disapproval of her employers wealth and Westernized values. The film portrays Habibeh’s growing resentment as ignorant and misguided, but it’s hard to deny she has a point when Farnez claims the two are friends and Habibeh points out that the Amins have never once invited her to dine with them during the twenty years she has spent in their employ.
Blair and screenwriter Hanna Weg’s decision to omit a significant subplot involving Parviz’s experiences in the U.S. from their adaptation of Sofer’s novel might have made more sense if they devoted the resulting time to depicting the complex, evolving relationship between Farnez and Habibeh as the two women negotiate their relative positions in the wake of sweeping social and political upheaval. Instead the filmmakers serve up scene after scene of Isaac’s suffering and torture in prison, including one faintly ludicrous mock execution scene where the director attempts to convey Isaac’s terror by shifting the camera away from his Oscar-winning actor’s face to linger on Brody’s urine soaked feet.
Septembers in Shiraz is a competently made melodrama/thriller featuring compelling performances from an international cast that ultimately fails to capture the highly personalized poignancy of its source material.