In the West, he’s the lesser-known member of the great triumvirate that includes Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, but he’s also Iran’s longest-running cinematic master. Dariush Mehrjui’s films combine elements of mysticism and neorealism in striking portraits of disenfranchised people, whether haute bourgeois housewives or derelicts inhabiting
the lower depths of Tehran. This
10-film retrospective reveals a director who over the course of three decades has managed to trouble the censors
of both pre- and postrevolutionary Iranian society.
With The Cow (1970), a film about peasant life and an oblique political allegory, Mehrjui first garnered international acclaim and a ban on his work at home. International pressure helped secure the release of The Cycle, a cinematic vision of hell depicting urban degradation and corruption. A sick, impoverished old man and his young son arrive in Tehran seeking medical treatment, but end up at a center where junkies and other outcasts sell their blood for
money. The son quickly learns the ways of the capital, living from graft and exploitation. Not for the fainthearted, Mehrjui’s film vividly renders a social order that literally sucks the blood of its less fortunate members.
Since the revolution, Mehrjui’s films have frequently focused on middle-class women caught in double binds imposed by the new society. In Pari (1995), a young student on the brink of marriage undergoes a spiritual crisis; in Sara (1994), a housewife’s world crumbles when her husband discovers she’s paid his debts with money she earned in secret. Leila (1997) follows a newlywed who finds her happiness threatened when she’s unable to conceive a child. These last two films use subtle camerawork and complex characterizations to tease out the multiple contradictions of Iranian women’s roles and desires.
The Pear Tree (1998), Mehrjui’s most recent work, is also his most autobiographical. In this lyrical film, a man of letters suffering from writer’s block takes refuge in a country house filled with childhood memories, where a barren pear tree in his orchard sparks a Proustian meditation on past love, politics, and the nature of being. “Since it is blank and unwritten, my last is my most perfect work,” the writer explains with dire irony. Let’s hope it’s not the last we hear from this consummate director.