Review:  ‘Fifi Howls From Happiness’ ventures into artist’s exile

As the artist strives to shape the world around him or her, and sometimes simply survive the times, the matter of posterity can become naggingly elusive.

This struggle is explored with patience, warmth and irreverence in documentarian-artist Mitra Farahani’s engaging portraiture “Fifi Howls From Happiness,” in which Farahani tracks down firebrand Iranian painter and sculptor Bahman Mohasses at his chosen exile for the twilight of an old iconoclast: a nondescript hotel in Rome.

Once a leading light of Iran’s pre-revolutionary art scene and a gay antiwar provocateur whose bulked-up figures often lacked hands, feet, eyes or mouths, Mohasses invites Farahani’s camera and questions with a certain wariness. But soon he proudly accepts (along with the director’s cigarettes) the mantle of star: still defiant about the decision to destroy much of his work, gleeful about the ways he defied authority and openly nostalgic for homosexuality’s disappearing forbiddenness.

Visited by followers commissioning a new piece, he’s then heartbreakingly revealing about what does matter to him, like the painting (“Fifi”) that gives the movie its title. By its bittersweet end, “Fifi Howls From Happiness” has stayed almost entirely in one apartment and yet somehow unveiled both a life in full and a blank canvas. Such paradoxes, Farahani’s movie suggests, are as essential as anything when trying to convey the worth of an artist.

“Fifi Howls From Happiness.”

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

At Laemmle’s Royal, West L.A.