Westerners expect a Third World filmmaker to show something exotic and colorful, or else to make a film about the poor,” suggests 59-year-old director Dariush Mehrjui as a possible explanation for why his career, which spans 32 years, has only recently attracted the attention of American distributors. The intimate chamber drama of Leila, which opened last week, certainly has little in common with the reflexive semidocumentaries and neorealist allegories about children that have so far represented Iranian cinema in the U.S.
An intense man who resembles Lou Reed, Mehrjui began our interview by quizzing me on his work, insisting on the importance of Mr. Naive, a 1970 film not included in last November’s Walter Reade retrospective, while speaking dismissively of his ’80s films. He credits De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief with inspiring him to become a director: “It made me realize that film could have a transcendental element and could be as important as literature.”
Although early films like The Cow and The Cycle focused on impoverished characters, Mehrjui’s recent work centers around the Tehran bourgeoisie. He credits this development to “a split in my own psyche,” adding, “I once hoped that art could change reality. At one moment, that was very appropriate, but after the revolution, it seemed meaningless. The people we were defending were now governing us. Because of this fact, I realized that social commitment can be a false consciousness. I’m more introspective in my outlook now. I think we have to look inside ourselves to make changes.”
Despite this seemingly apolitical stance, Mehrjui’s interest in sexual politics is still apparent; Leila forms the final chapter of a quartet of films about women: 1992’s Banoo; 1993’s Sara, an adaptation of A Doll’s House; and 1995’s Pari, an unauthorized adaptation of Franny and Zooey. As it happens, the impetus behind this series came from the constraints of censorship. Banoo—which Mehrjui says is about “an intellectual who gets caught up in the death of ideology and the downfall of belief, told from a woman’s perspective”—was banned. “If it were not banned,” he says, “I would have probably made something else, but the three other films came from this sudden rupture in my work. Sara was a kind of replacement for Banoo. I made it with fear and trembling because it was another film about a rebellious woman.” After finally being approved by the Iranian censors, Banoo has since premiered at this year’s Berlin and Fajr film festivals.
Since completing Leila in 1997, Mehrjui has made another feature, The Pear Tree, as well as a short film in an omnibus feature. His next project will be Mix, a comedy set in the frantic atmosphere of a film undergoing postproduction editing immediately before the annual Fajr festival.
Leila‘s portrait of a passive-aggressive, seemingly masochistic woman proved to be controversial in Iran, a response duplicated when Mehrjui gave a Q&A session after a screening to a largely Iranian American audience at the Walter Reade. He responds to charges of misogyny by suggesting that the film’s critics “only see the surface,” adding, “Some people thought I was encouraging men to go out and get multiple wives, which is absurd. It’s like thinking that the director of a violent film wants the audience to think that murder is good. By showing a woman who is manipulative, I don’t mean to suggest that all Iranian women behave like this or have power over men. Both men and women are capable of acting cruelly.”