If Iranian cinema still leads the Arab pack in terms of visionary sophistication, then Darius Mehrjui is its beleaguered pioneer, having struggled with suppression under the Shah and the ayatollahs, and forged many of the movement’s renowned tropes (frank self-reflexivity, peasant simplicity-with-a-nipple-twist, textural intimacy with landscape, sly social critique) as early as the ’60s. His impossibly powerful Leila (1996) is still Mehrjui’s best-known film here, but now First Run is DVD’ing his two earlier, most revered masterpieces: The Cow (1969) and Hamoun (1990). The Cow is commonly referred to as the Iranian new wave’s starter gun, and as much as it derives from Italian neorealism in its desert-village grit and seemingly fundamental tale about a man, the cow he loves, and what happens when the animal mysteriously dies, it’s no simple morality lesson. Master of the unforeseen climactic exclamation point, Mehrjui is careful to sympathize with every character, respect his or her natural silences, and anticipate our craving for judgment, which never comes.
Hamoun is just as expansive, turning a schlub-comic trick on Fellini’s 8 1/2 and tracking the dilapidated life of a Persian intellectual (no slight resemblance to Mehrjui himself) as both his completely disenchanted, divorce-seeking wife and his own scatterbrained self-absorption drive him to the brink. Always attentive to the natural image and hyperaware of how humanness is assumed on film and not “seen,” Mehrjui demonstrates a natural facility with cinema’s essential contradictions, and remains a master largely unclaimed by Western film culture.