For the Iranian college students in "Desert Dancer," dance is an act of defiance against an oppressive regime. The often painfully bland movie is set against the rise of the Green Movement after Iran's 2009 presidential elections, and it's based on events in the life of Afshin Ghaffarian, who formed an underground troupe in Tehran.
Reece Ritchie brings heart to the lead role, particularly in the decisive solo performance that caps the film. But that sequence is as expressive and alive as the rest of the supposedly movement-loving drama is static.
There are, however, a few lovely moments of communion between Ghaffarian and some of his heroes, among them Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Jackson — dancing ghosts in footage that he watches in classrooms and online. In the film's most telling moment, one of his rebellious friends (Tom Cullen) shows Ghaffarian how to bypass the country's firewall and access YouTube, and the first thing he looks up is "pirouette."
As directed by Richard Raymond from Jon Croker's exposition-laden screenplay, the film hinges on the built-in virtue of its characters' pursuit of beauty and truth. It's hard not to root for artists when they're pitted against rabid morality police. And yet Ghaffarian's story plays out within such a generic framework, and with such self-importance, that it's all too easy to remain untouched by the onscreen events.
Freida Pinto's troubled beauty is a case in point: In her pas de deux with Ghaffarian as well as their non-dancing exchanges, she's more emblematic than flesh-and-blood. Even the troupe's authority-evading performance in the middle of sand dunes, meant to be a showstopper, is emotionally underwhelming.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, drug material and violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.