Dance has always been a force for expression and storytelling. When done correctly, it can tell stories that would otherwise take hours to verbally describe. Oppressive governments fear the openness of expression dancing and other individualistic art forms provide, and Iran is no exception. Desert Dancer tells a watered-down version of the story of acclaimed dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, and his struggle for freedom.
Afshin (Reece Ritchie) has always had an affinity with the arts, especially dance. From smuggled bootleg copies of Dirty Dancing, his passion for dance was lit. Unfortunately, Iran is a very religious-run country, so Morality Police are always watching to put an end to things like public displays of affection, women openly displaying their hair, and people dancing in the streets, because we know how these things are a slippery slope into indecency. He finds temporary sanctuary in a community arts center, and a supportive mentor in Mehdi (Makram Khoury), who encouraged him to follow his dancing dreams. The building continues to get vandalized and forced to be repaired, which symbolizes the uphill battle Afshin has ahead of him.
Only in University does he have the ability to even begin to pursue his passion. With the help of a group of friends, he establishes an underground dance troupe as a form of rebellion against their repressive society and government. Elaheh (Freida Pinto) overhears their plans and joins them, having a shady past with dance. There is an instant connection between Afshin and Elaheh, which is very powerful yet slightly toxic. They help each other, but mainly help Afshin realize his full potential. There are dark forces in play, during the election of a new president, that could threaten their troupe and their lives.
The fluidity of the dancing moves exude a story all on their own. It is the same as the story we are being told in the film, only in more dynamic, fearless way. Desert Dancer goes through the motions, sticking more to conventions and niceties rather than going against them. All of that is almost pardonable when it comes time for the two leads, Ritchie and Pinto, to demonstrate their cohesive chemistry both on the dance floor and off of it. Their dynamic was one of the few things that didn’t feel forced in this film. Their energy was complementary and helped keep this otherwise predictable film, watchable.
The film’s tagline is, “Freedom Takes Courage,” and I wish that mantra would have been applied by first-time director Richard Raymond. There was an emphasis on the beauty of the choreography, but displaying more of the brutality, rather than shying away from it, would have made the contrast more visceral. Instead, the story outside of the dancing feels superfluous and forced since the the bravery of dance dares to tell the same story in a more provocative and honest way. The film keeps everything light, and doesn’t dare to fully immerse us in the true darkness we know exists. I’m not just talking about the violence, but also the drug addiction and recovery is devalued.
Desert Dancer has beauty and truth in it, but it lies exclusively in the chemistry between the two leads and the stylized dancing. That said, these instances were too few in a film that could have greatly benefited from being an entire interpretative dance performance. The story of freedom from oppression and freedom of expression in Iran is a somber and ruthless one, but you’d never know the true extent of it by seeing this film.
RATING: ★★★★(4/10 stars)