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Review: ‘Dancer’ fights against artistic repression

Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto in a scene from “Desert Dancer.”
Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto in a scene from “Desert Dancer.”
Roger Moore Tribune News Service

“So you are an artist,” an Iranian member of the Basij, the country’s paramilitary morality police, hisses at the hero of “Desert Dancer,” who is about to be punished.

“Beat him … artistically!”

You have to get by the occasional risible moment of melodrama to get into “Desert Dancer,” another account of personal and artistic repression in modern-day Iran. It’s a film as predictable as its title. But this “true story” of a dancer longing to express himself in a fascist theocracy is still affecting, and it finds its surest footing in several vivid scenes of interpretive dance.

Afshin (Reece Ritchie) got his first beating in middle school for imitating what he saw on a “Dirty Dancing” video. Early scenes show him studying in an ever-threatened arts school in his hometown.

It’s only when he attends university in Tehran that he runs into like-minded artists and friends with the skills to get past the electronic censors and into YouTube. That’s where Afshin learns his moves, and that prompts him to start a super-secret underground dance ensemble.

The beautiful, talented and apparently trained Elaheh (Freida Pinto) crashes into the group and into Afshin’s life. She makes him want to attempt a public performance in a country where dance “isn’t illegal, technically. It’s forbidden.”

The backdrop here is Iran’s abortive Green Revolution, the youthquake that threatened the theocratic regime with its votes, its underground raves and its flouting of fundamentalist dogma.

Simon Kassianides is a Basij thug who arm-twists his college kid brother into giving up the members of the group so that they can be beaten and stabbed into submission.

Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) does well by a young woman whose passionate, if chaste, dancing complements Afshin’s dance as defiance. Elaheh, alas, has problems that feel contrived, until you start to think about the limited horizons of Iran’s college-age generation and what they might do (short of taking up arms) to escape it.

First-time feature director Richard Raymond never quite lifts this above generic in tone and message. Still, the 2009 street scenes have an energy, and a childhood flashback delivers a rare moment of humor. But it is his performers and their arresting, almost simplistic “message” dances that make “Desert Dancer” worth its sand.

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