Beyond Xanadu

Washington City Paper | December 19, 2005
The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam is also an American fictionalization of an Eastern culture, but one undertaken with a very different mentality. Houston-based writer-director Kayvan Mashayekh was born in Iran, and his goal is to honor and preserve the memory of the 11th-century Persian poet, astronomer, and mathematician best known in the English-speaking world for Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 abridged translation of his work, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Before beginning to shoot his first feature, Mashayekh clearly made a strong case for his vision: He raised enough money to attain professional production values and recruited a number of well-known actors. The result is earnest and likable, if a bit too stolid for anyone without a pre-existing interest in the subject.

To entice just such viewers, Mashayekh devised an eminently American framing story: Soccer-playing Houston 12-year-old Kamran (Adam Echahly) is a typical suburban kid, save for his family link to Khayyam. In some way, Kamran is in line to become the “keeper” of the poet’s biography, which has never been committed to paper. In fact, the life that Mashayekh presents is largely conjecture: An astronomy prodigy, Omar is adopted by Imam Muaffak (Rade Serbedzija), a scholar who will later serve as political adviser to Seljuk Turk ruler Malikshah (Moritz Bleibtreu). Omar becomes friends with Hassan, a nobleman’s son, and both fall in love with Darya (Marie Espinosa), a slave girl.

After the three grow up, Hassan’s father sells Darya, and an embittered Hassan (Christopher Simpson) becomes a Muslim fanatic and the leader of the cult that inspired the word “assassin.” Omar (Bruno Lastra), meanwhile, is enlisted to advise Malikshah while staying true to his scholarly interests. Intercut with this swashbuckling saga are Kamran’s continuing efforts to learn Omar’s full story, which include an impulsive trip to Britain, where he meets the granddaughter (Vanessa Redgrave, no less) of a man who created a deluxe edition of the Rubaiyat that sank with the Titanic.

Such a book really existed, and many of the historical developments Mashayekh fictionalizes are also fact, although he sometimes elides a pungent detail. He doesn’t mention, for example, that the assassin tag is derived from the killers’ use of hashish—but then, that information wouldn’t fit neatly into a PG fable that extols loving your family and following your heart, two of Hollywood’s prime imperatives. The director capably conjures a protagonist who’s upright, normal, and so contemporary that he might as well trade in his horse for a Prius. Though that bodes well for The Keeper’s future among junior-high-school students, most adult viewers would probably be more engaged by a less-idealized Omar Khayyam.

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