Mitra Farahani, Fifi Howls from Happiness, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Bahman Mohasses.

FRENHOFER, C’EST MOI, Paul Cézanne was said to have said about the principal character in “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (The Unknown Masterpiece), a short story by Honoré de Balzac from the year 1831. In the little-known tale, two younger artists, Nicolas Poussin and the more established Porbus, spend time with Frenhofer, an aging master. As the three drink wine and eat smoked ham, they exchange thrilling ideas about art and originality, finally settling on the question of Frenhofer’s unrealized masterpiece, a painting that has been vexing him for years. When Frenhofer finally completes the work, the two ingénues are deeply disappointed by its manifestation—able only to make out a series of strange lines and an obscured foot. Frustrated by their response, in a fit of frenzy and madness, Frenhofer dies in the night after having burned his canvas first.

Balzac’s tale, however arch and exaggerated it might be as a neat parable for all kinds of things—among them neglected genius and painting as a tortuous and torturous journey—has a great deal in common with Fifi Howls from Happiness, a documentary of beauty, intelligence, and wit about the late artist Bahman Mohasses. Like The Unknown Masterpiece, Fifi, too, is about art and iconoclasm. It also features two young artist-pilgrims who come to bask in a mad master’s glory at the end of his life. And yet, in Fifi, there is a fourth, crucial, personage: in the form of the filmmaker, Mitra Farahani, a temptress who hovers on screen and off, coaxing our hero into life in his twilight years.

As the film opens we are led to wonder: Whatever happened to Bahman Mohasses? A beloved rebel of the modern art scene of 1950s–70s Tehran, he made distinctive sculptures and paintings that featured surreal animal-like forms and figures—contorted, missing hands and feet, exaggerated, lustful. Hard-smoking, foul-mouthed, and full of soulful pessimism, Mohasses had no illusions about the nasty world he lived in; any democracy was as bankrupt as any dictatorship, and all rulers were crooks. “But I am only one John the Baptist preaching alone in the desert. It will make no difference,” he declares at one point, surrounded by works inspired by war and pestilence. It is one of many acid statements to come.

Colorful stories ensue. During the ’60s, Mohasses was commissioned to produce a sculptural likeness of the royal family, but the Shah rejected it, complaining that it was unflattering. At the time of the 1979 revolution, another sculptural commission, The Flute Player, had some of its bulging parts (private and otherwise) removed by agents of the nascent Islamic Republic. (Sweetly, they deny this, and say that the pieces in question simply broke off.) Mohasses left Tehran during the revolution that would oust the Shah and bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power, and his life swiftly became the stuff of rumor and, finally, fabulous myth: They say the last time he was in Iran he destroyed all of his work; he is living in Rome, surrounded by young boys; he is solitary, working in his native city of Rasht, on the Caspian Sea.

He is, it turns out, in Rome. But before turning to the room in the Hotel Sacconi in which he lives, Fifi cuts to an archival film from the year 1967, a pithy feature about the young Mohasses made by Iranian state television in which he is shown to be a frolicking bon vivant engaging in café life, painting feverishly in his studio as if enacting a parody of being an artist (“It is a need for me exactly like taking a piss”), declaring himself of historic significance, and so on. It is a whole film within a film, and even then, rendered in grainy black and white, the subject burns bright.

In Rome, now in his 80s and no longer making work, Mohasses is bewildered by the petite female filmmaker before him. Farahani, whose syrupy voice serves as siren-like narration, clearly wants something from the legendary figure, but like anyone on a treasure hunt, she is probably aiming for the stars. And yet, this is not a standard encounter between the journalist and the murderer, for the artist-murderer pushes back. Mohasses the subject probably directs the director as much as she directs him: Put this in, say this, shoot this…end with this. “I will tell you my life story so that every idiot doesn’t write my biography the way it suits him,” he says.

Death is the specter that hovers in and around this work. More than a knowing film about filmmaking, Fifi is profoundly about what remains. Worrying about posterity, Mohasses announces, is for losers. By now, we’ve learned that the rumors about the artist destroying his own work are true. Among the few works that remain is the Fifi Howls from Happiness of the title, a faceless, handless grotesque of abundant breast that hangs on his wall. “I can’t sell her,” he confides, as if she encapsulates all the truth he knows.

But before he leaves this earth, Mohasses receives one last commission by the two younger artists with whom we began—Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh—both in evident thrall to their iconoclast-hero. One night, they all sit watching Visconti’s The Leopard with its poofy baroque costumery and intrigue, and Mohasses sheds tears. Not unlike Visconti’s fading prince, the aging artist is a distinguished leopard—elegant, knowing, out of place. And yet, his fate, like poor Don Fabrizio’s, will be to leave this earth cruelly, eaten by jackals.

The end of Fifi—which is difficult to watch and inspires equal parts sadness and agitation (for is the film apparatus itself part jackal?)—comes soon after. As the artist chokes on his own blood and declares, matter-of-factly, “I am dying,” the filmmaker, Farahani, who is right there, summons up his voice as if he were addressing her: “This is the most real image I could have given you.”

Negar Azimi

Fifi Howls from Happiness is now playing at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and opens at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on Friday, August 15.