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True story 'Desert Dancer' stumbles onto the big screen
Frieda Pinto and Reece Ritchie star in Desert Dancer. - photo by Josh Terry
Desert Dancer is based on a true story, and maybe thats its problem.

In just under 100 minutes, it crams in narratives about heroin addiction, Irans 2009 presidential election, and a Footloose-style showdown between some passionate dancers and the oppressive culture they live in.

The result is a lot of interesting moments that dont quite fit together and an uneven film that tells a story but stumbles over its message.

We meet our protagonist as a child. Afshin Ghaffarian loves to dance, but his love for the arts clashes with the oppressive standards of Irans Islamic State. After getting in trouble for dancing in school, he meets his future mentor. Mehdi (Makram Khoury) introduces Afshin to the Saba Arts Center, a safe zone for the arts that manages to exist in spite of local persecution.

Here, Mehdi tells Afshin that there are two Irans. One is filled with life, and it embraces the arts. The other rose after the revolution of 1979 and has created conflict ever since.

Years go by, and we rejoin Afshin as an adult, now played by Reece Ritchie. Afshin is attending the University of Tehran, where Mehdis two Irans are in vivid conflict. The upcoming elections have washed the city in political conflict and violence, and on campus, Afshin and some kindred spirits are forming an underground dance troupe. The troupe is part of a greater underground youth movement that includes hard drug use among its more noble pursuits.

Eventually Afshin and his friends arrange to hold a recital in the desert. Its a passionate statement, but opposition is closing in from within and without. One member of the group has a fundamentalist brother who is pressuring him to root out unlawful activities. Another member, Elaheh (Freida Pinto), is fighting a heroin addiction, made all the more complicated by her budding relationship with Afshin.

This all works to set up what should be the final act of the film. But real life doesnt always translate to a three-act screenplay, and Desert Dancer continues Afshins story to the point that you feel as if you are watching more than one film. The result feels out of sync and confused.

Desert Dancers strongest moments come through its dance performances, which communicate much more effectively than its plot or its dialogue. Ritchie and Pinto carry the bulk of the choreographed load and heft it with confidence.

This feels consistent with one of the films dominant messages, the idea that one should find his or her own secret language. For the characters in Desert Dancer Afshin especially dance is that language, and it represents their entire existence.

At times, though, the juxtaposition of dance and political upheaval feels strained. Afshins determination to risk life and limb in the name of interpretive dance strains for nobility but feels awkward when there are riots in the streets outside the practice studio.

The sum total is an interesting true-life story that just doesnt make for a great movie. Desert Dancer has its moments, but it feels like a story that was better lived than re-told.

Desert Dancer is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, sensual content and images of drug abuse.