Leave Nothing Behind

The late gay Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses. MUSIC BOX FILMS

The late gay Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses. | MUSIC BOX FILMS

The gay Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses, who died at age 79 in 2010, is the subject of a fascinating documentary, “Fifi Howls From Happiness.” The film is named after one of Mohasses’ paintings — arguably his favorite, one he carried to many exhibitions. Most of his work, he explains in the film, has been destroyed.

The film opens with a collector explaining his obsession with Mohasses’ art and how there are no real visible traces of him. Director Mitra Farahani, however, locates Mohasses living in a room at the Hotel Sacconi in Rome. She won’t reveal how she found him, but she does share her interviews with him, in which she elicits remarkable comments. “My entire world is here,” Mohasses tells her, by way of explaining why he no longer leaves his hotel.

The first and better half of “Fifi Howls From Happiness” allows the artist to tell his story. At points, he directs Farahani, instructing her to show images of the city or of the sea as he reflects on his work and on episodes from his life. The filmmaker also incorporates her own visual themes — a fish, to symbolize the artist, and nudists on a beach, who echo famous sculptures Mohasses created.

A precious look at an Iranian gay artist whose imprint has gradually vanished

Likely unknown to many, Mohasses is an engaging subject and Farahani showcases him and his work well. The artist can be warm and witty, as when he recounts the story of “The Flutist,” a sculpture he made that couldn’t be displayed because it featured nudity. When finally installed in Tehran, the royal family insisted that underpants be added to the sculpture. Eventually, Mohasses relates, the shorts were blown away by the wind and rain. Couples on dates now arrange to meet under the statute, the artist gleefully says.

That Mohasses’ works — soothing, beautiful sculptures and vivid and surreal paintings — are censored is really no surprise. He recalls someone commenting, “That’s quite a dick” upon seeing the artist’s sculpture “Special Messenger.” The piece was commissioned for a Tehran museum that, Mohasses speculates, “probably destroyed it.”

But the artist admits to having destroyed many of his own paintings. Two dozen canvases shown in a stunning montage were all cut up by Mohasses, according to the film. Making the art, he explains, is what fulfilled his emotional and intellectual needs.” For the artist, painting is “a need, like taking a piss or bursting a pimple. It brings relief.” He has no interest in leaving his work behind, he says, saying that modern man is “condemned to devastation.” Mohasses is not interested in his legacy, he says; his concern, instead, was in living his life.

These proclamations may be a matter of artistic provocation. The second half of the film focuses on two exiled Iranian brothers, Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, who commission a work of art from Mohasses. Here we see Mohasses revealing himself to the two artist/ collectors, showing them collages no one has seen before. The brothers discuss purchasing Mohasses’ collection of art from his Rome hotel room.

Farahani lets her camera observe these interactions, interrupting them at times with well chosen archival or interview footage.

The issue of legacy is, in fact, a critical idea for Mohasses, who says, “My era has ended.” He sees chatter about Ricky Martin in the news as a symbol of cultural decline. “I am revolted by everything,” he says.

“Fifi Howls From Happiness” offers some clues as to Mohasses’ frame of mind. His paintings and sculptures — which range in subject from Somalia, Chernobyl, and oil spills to Jan Palach, the Czech student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire to protest the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring — illustrate his rage. Mohasses is very invested in addressing issues of inequality — between races, genders, and sexual orientations. In one of the film’s few mentions of his homosexuality, Mohasses confesses he is attracted to straight men who have fiancées, but he also mentions a “sweetie,” Marco.

Despite all this, “Fifi Howls From Happiness” manages to never make Mohasses a curmudgeonly figure. Farahani’s elegant portrait allows the artist to express himself both verbally and visually. He can be cagey, refusing to answer the filmmaker’s question about why he paints fish, which leads Farahani to prompt the Haerizadeh brothers to ask him about that.

The fact that no response is forthcoming seems wholly appropriate. The ultimate strength of Farahani’s marvelous film is that viewers must evaluate Mohasses’ output and his philosophy on the artist’s own terms.

FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS | Directed by Mitra Farahani | Music Box Films | Opens Aug. 8 | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at 63rd St. | lincolnplazacinema.com