Fine acting and other qualities don't quite save this Holocaust story

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Lars Eidinger in Persian Lessons
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Lars Eidinger in Persian Lessons

Persian Lessons
Directed by Vadim Perelman
Starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, David Schütter
In cinemas

In Persian Lessons, Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart brilliantly portrays Belgian Jew, Gilles, who survives the Holocaust by pretending to be Persian, adopting the name "Reza". The brutal commandant of the prisoner transfer camp he is sent to just happens to have a deep-seated desire to learn Farsi.

Similar to Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, Reza has to invent a language to cover for the fact that he knows not a word of Farsi, spinning out the deceit day by day, staying one lesson ahead of his tormentor.

He also gets pressed into compiling the register of prisoner names, which allows him to create the words he needs and memorise them.

The film claims to be based on true events and has many strengths in its cinematography, score, production design, costumes and acting, which keep its absurd premise at arm’s length for long enough to make it engaging.

European audiences found comic moments in Persian Lessons. I didn’t, but its melancholy was saved by the quality performances of the two lead actors, the interest of side-stories involving ambitious SS soldiers undermining their leaders through gossip, and the linguistic wit of devising a false language.

The plot lacks believability because a language does not consist only of words. Syntax, phonetics, semantics, cultural idioms and other building blocks of meaning can’t simply be plucked out of the air.

So, while introduced into a very realistic representation of Nazi horror, we are invited to suspend disbelief so the plot can proceed.

The film's climax is a sequence that reveals the film’s intent, but tasted of saccharine and undermined everything that came before it. With slightly reworked scripting and direction it could have been perfect.

Persian Lessons is worthwhile and certainly excellent in its components, but ultimately unsatisfying.

The trailer for Persian Lessons can be seen here.