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    News & Views

    Revealing an Iran Where the Chadors Are Most Chic

    November 8, 1998
    The New York Times

    IN the sweepstakes for the title Most Interesting and Accomplished Filmmaker the United States Has Never Heard Of, Dariush Mehrjui has certain obvious advantages. While still in his 20's, the Iranian director made "The Cow" (1969), a film so powerful that it not only was credited with launching Iran's modern cinema but also, a decade later, made a fan of the Ayatollah Khomeini and thus helped assure that country's cinema of having a post-Revolutionary phase. Cosmopolitan and ever-controversial, Mr. Mehrjui has had films banned by the Shah's regime and the Islamic Republic, and almost surely is the only filmmaker reared a devout Muslim who counts the novelists J. D. Salinger and Saul Bellow as major influences on his work. He's even made a film of Mr. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey," called "Pari," set in contemporary Iran.

    That film, and a retrospective of eight other movies by Dariush Mehrjui, will be shown starting on Friday, when the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a three-week series on Iranian film.

    While the extent of Mr. Mehrjui's career may come as news to American cinephiles, his importance is universally recognized in Iran. In 1997, when the respected Iranian journal Film Monthly polled its readers and critics, the results showed that the readers regarded Mr. Mehrjui's "Hamoon," a dark satire of modern Iran, as the best Iranian film in history, ahead of such internationally acclaimed works as Abbas Kiarostami's "Through the Olive Trees" and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Gabbeh." The critics, meanwhile, ranked Mr. Mehrjui higher in importance than Mr. Kiarostami and Mr. Makhmalbaf, and cited "Hamoon" as more significant than any of their films.

    So why hasn't his renown traveled as well as others'? Back in 1971, "The Cow" won prizes at film festivals in Chicago and Venice, and even some of his more recent films have captured international awards (his "Leila" played last spring's New Directors/ New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art). Yet in the last decade Mr. Mehrjui hasn't been favored by many of the top European film festivals, and the reasons evoke a paradox that goes to the heart of his work and its cultural resonances. When asked, European festival programmers usually say that they bypass Mr. Mehrjui's films because his work is "too Western." That opinion provokes howls of disbelieving laughter in Iran. Iranians feel sure they know why the West doesn't "get" Mr. Mehrjui, and they'll gladly tell you: it's that his films are "too Iranian."

    Both perceptions stem from the fact that, virtually alone among Iranian directors, Mr. Mehrjui deals regularly, knowingly and provocatively with Iran 's middle and upper-middle classes. His characters drive BMWs, wear chadors that are distinctly chic, and argue (endlessly) over art,religion, divorce settlements and real-estate deals. At a time when " Iranian cinema" internationally connotes a certain distanced exoticism, views of rug-weaving nomads or impoverished children against crumbling buildings, Mr. Mehrjui's sleek, educated, post-modern Teheran is clearly anomalous.

    But hardly forbidding. "You see his characters and feel like you could step into their living rooms and be perfectly comfortable," says Richard Pena, the programming director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which included Mehrjui films in its two previous Iranian festivals.

    MR. MEHRJUI, who lives with his wife, Farial, a Harvard-educated architect, and their two children in genteel northern Teheran , belongs to the world he describes. Born in 1939 to a middle-class family, he describes himself as being intensely interested in music, fiction, religion, philosophy and other subjects as a teen-ager. Vittorio De Sica's neorealist classic "The Bicycle Thief" was the film that sparked his interest in cinema. After learning English and investigating what were then a very small group of universities abroad that taught film, he selected the University of California at Los Angeles and enrolled in 1959.

    The experience proved disillusioning. He was excited by the visions of Antonioni, Fellini and Godard, filmmakers never mentioned by his professors, who, Mr. Mehrjui recalled, "were the kind of people who had not been able to make it in Hollywood themselves but would bring the rotten atmosphere of Hollywood to the class and impose it on us." He switched his major to philosophy.

    Returning to Iran in 1965, he took an offer to direct a James Bond spoof that set new standards for technical ambition in Iran but was a commercial disappointment. His artistic career began with his second feature.

    "The Cow" remains a dazzling achievement, the most impressive of Mr. Mehrjui's pre-Revolutionary features. Showing the influence of the neorealist works he admired, the film depicts a poor village thrown into turmoil by the loss of its one cow, whose owner develops a mad identification with the dead animal.

    Spare, allusive, featuring starkly beautiful black and white photography and an extraordinary lead performance by Ezatollah Entezami, now Iran 's most revered actor, "The Cow" had a catalytic effect on Iran 's filmmakers and critics. But the Shah's government, which had funded it, bristled at the film's depiction of poverty and suppressed its public display.

    Social themes remained at the center of his work through the 70's. "Mr. Simpleton" (1970), a satire about a bumpkin seduced by Teheran 's big-city ways, was his one box office smash during this period, and the one film not to run afoul of official views. "Postman" (1971), a free adaptation of Georg Buchner's "Wozzeck," won prizes at the Venice Film Festival but provoked the Shah's censors, while "The Cycle" (1974), a blistering drama about poor people forced to sell their blood, was slapped with a ban that lasted three years.

    In the months before the 1979 Revolution, Mr. Mehrjui spent time in France filming the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom he supported, and other exiled anti-Shah leaders. Watching "The Cow" reportedly spurred Khomeini to comment approvingly on the cinema's social uses, a statement that proved valuable to progressive officials trying to revive the film industry under the Islamic Republic. After a sojourn in France, where he made a meditative docudrama about the poet Rimbaud, Mr. Mehrjui returned to Iran and found his post-Revolutionary voice in "The Tenants" (1987), an exuberant, brilliantly mounted comedy about a group of apartment dwellers at war with the slick realtor who wants to evict them. The Islamic Republic's first runaway hit, the film, like other Mehrjui works, still amazes with its stingingly direct satire of contemporary social discontents.

    "Hamoon" (1990), which I, like Iranians, consider his best film, tells of a hapless 40-year-old intellectual undergoing a mental meltdown as his marriage unravels. The most autobiographical of his movies, the dark comedy-drama shows a third world society invaded by Toshiba and Sony, where characters fixate on their connections to Kierkegaard and Salinger as well as to Islamic religious figures, and where the protagonist's artist wife shouts at her beleaguered lawyer, "Women have no rights in this country!"

    That accusation leads directly to the four female-centered films Mr. Mehrjui made next. "Banoo" (1992), a brooding satire loosely based on Bunuel's "Viridiana," about a rich women whose house is invaded by poor people, has been banned since completion. "Sara" (1994) and "Pari" (1995) transfer well- known Western literary works -- Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and Mr. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey," respectively -- to contemporary Iran with fascinating results. (Both films star the popular young actress Niki Karimi, who will appear with a group of Iranian women filmmakers at a Nov. 20 screening.) And "Leila," a melodrama about a young wife whose in-laws pressure her to allow her husband to take a second wife, has the distinction of being the first Mehrjui film picked up for United States distribution; it will be released in the spring by First Run Features.

    His most recent film, which he will introduce at the series opening on Friday, is "The Pear Tree." It depicts a writer recalling his adolescence in the idyllic Teheran of decades past. A lyrical, burnished memory film, it occasioned one of the director's slyest end runs around the censor: unable to show the hair of the teen-age girl who dominates the story's flashback, he depicts the character getting her head shaved because of lice, then wearing a "wig" that looks suspiciously like the young actress's hair. The witty ruse typifies the ingenuity of a director who has managed to chronicle the fortunes of Iranians through three decades of shifting political winds.


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