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'Desert Dancer' review: Sidestepping censors in Iran (2 stars)

"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," a predictable account of personal and artistic repression in modern-day Iran. This "true story" of a dancer longing to express himself in a fascist theocracy 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, friends with the skills to get past the electronic censors and onto YouTube. That's where Afshin learns his moves, and that prompts him to start a supersecret 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.

Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire") does well as the 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 to escape it.

First-time feature director Richard Raymond never quite lifts this movie beyond 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.

 

PLOT Young people in Iran express themselves in dance, even though it's forbidden. RATED PG-13 (thematic elements, some drug material and violence)

 

CAST Reese Ritchie, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Simon Kassianides, Makram Khoury

 

LENGTH 1:38

 

PLAYING AT Squire Cinemas, Great Neck

 

BOTTOM LINE A generic story that steps it up in the dance numbers.

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