Review by Ashley Chapman
Decadence and Downfall: The Shah of Iran’s Ultimate Party, Storyville, 2015-2016 now showing on the BBC iPlayer is about how Shah Pahlavi of Iran spent the entire state budget, over $600 million dollars, in 1970 on a lavish party in the fabled city of Persepolis, while his people, battered by the fearful exigences of his secret police, the feared SAVA, wallowed in deprivation.
“The guests, beneath yards and yards of suffocating pink satin sit in the banqueting marquis, served exquisite Gallic food prepared by Maxim’s of Paris…while outside the locked-out millions watched on TV the noisy emptiness of it all.”
The Shah’s dreadful vanity is captured unambiguously, and events play out in this documentary of archival material as a premonition for his inevitable exile into merciful obscurity. The political farce Pahlavi presides over at home, shown in Decadence and Downfall, eventually meant that any possible return to credibility for his regime became increasingly remote, as prisons swelled with those who questioned his grandiose but ultimately despotic backward-looking rule.
Interviewed by BBC’s David Frost, the Shah when asked about torture appears coy on camera, talking about psychological interrogation methods, but behind the scenes the the film shows us how oppressive his regime actually was. As witnesses line up to describe how they were treated by his henchman. But the film has many lighter moments. In one such, a matron from the ruling elite recalls that her own staff were so embarrassed, as she addressed them in a bikini, they would turn away. She had forgotten, she recalls animatedly, that she lived in a Muslim country. Less funny, but equally poignant, was film of a former dissident removing his socks forty years after the event to reveal his still scarred feet beaten with bull whips. It all got a bit out of hand. The wealthy shah clearly losing the plot. Shah Pahlavi comes across as a a monarchical tyrant who is remote, dull and unimaginative, and weirdly remorseless. Uninterested in real effective modernization for Iran through shared power, he is nonetheless obsessed with turning it into an epic Babylonian pageant. The celebrations of Iran’s undoubted 2,500 year-old past historical glories were, as the film shows, so far removed from the aspirations of the majority of Iranians, they may as well have occurred on another plane of existence, and more dangerously rankled with them as they sat stupefied, watching the excesses on television.
The best is when Shah Pahlavi, standing before of the tomb of Cyrus the Great, attempts to align his failed regime with the glory of the former before his assembled guests; you get a tremendous sense of the Shah’s hubris. Cyrus, it transpires, known as a founding father of human rights, was actually a great unifier who embraced the cultures and religions he conquered. The incredibly pretentious Pahlavi was not really of that ilk. The Iranian activists interviewed for the documentary and the people you see sitting on mats watching events unfold on the goggle box were clearly all too aware that Shah Pahlavi lacked any real credentials. But there he is invoking Cyrus the Great, as swirls of dust rise with him — literally, two dust devils in the blood-red sand. His arms raised, you know with the benefit of hindsight, his magik will go very poorly for him, as all the pomp and ceremony in the entire world, and at that moment he has it all, will never bring back the heights of Persia’s past…Instead, just eight years down the line, the revolution of 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeini, another Supreme Leader, but cut from sober-black cloth. And actually when one compares Pahlavi’s lavish disregard for precedent, the history he admired but clearly did not understand, to speeches written by Khomeini, a cunning and deceptive, but nonetheless knowledgeable and elegant proselytiser, a realization becomes dawns. Iran has had to pass through all the political isolation of recent years to distance itself from the failings of the Pahlavi dynasty: its rank corruption, its insipid weakness, and its total lack of imagination in the modern era; a regime, so ineffectual it had a consortium of Western companies run its commercial affairs, without a single representative ‘allowed’ on its board. Things just had to change, and of course, finally they did, if unexpectedly for an Islamic state.
Now, watching this illuminating footage, the ‘ultimate’ party seems like a dream solemnly unfolding under ghastly plasticised dessert tents. Invited were 62 heads of state from around the world, representing the great and the good, including Prince Philip and Princess Anne, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco, King Hussein of Jordan, and even, making a rare appearance, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie; and the not so great, like Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, Tito of Yugoslavia and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. All crammed into an endless velvet hall to commemorate the pseudo re-enactment of Persia’s unrivalled past triumphs. The guests, beneath yards and yards of suffocating pink satin sit, in the stuffy banqueting marquis, served exquisite Gallic food prepared by no less than Maxim’s of Paris — with, of course, no expense spared even though Persia has a culinary culture to match any in the world — while outside, the locked-out millions watched the noisy emptiness of it all on TV, aghast. But the little man who liked to call himself the ‘King of Kings’ seems blithely unaware of how increasingly loathed he was, enjoying his moment in the shadow of his fore-bearers, while without, the gathering dust storm howled its rage.