LEILA

Directed by Dariush Mehrjui

Written by Mehrjui and Mahnaz Asarian

With Leila Hatami, Ali Mosaffa and Jamileh Sheikhi

Distributed by First Run Features

***1/2


If I had to choose one image to represent LEILA, I'd pick the still that shows its title character, clad in a black chador, talking on a cell phone. Like Dariush Mehrjui's other recent films, it explores the contradictions of modern Iran - in the process revealing that "modern Iran" isn't an oxymoron - by depicting a cosmopolitan Teheran bourgeoise who own computers, read Kierkegaard and dine out at Japanese restaurants while still living with reactionary attitudes about gender roles. While these films have turned up occasionally for brief engagements during the Film Society of Lincoln Center's several Iranian cinema series over the past few years, it was difficult to put his work into context until they presented a retrospective last fall. Within Iran, he's generally considered much more talented than Abbas Kiarostami, whose reputation is higher in the West, and the equal of Mohsen Makhmalbaf. (HAMOON, made in 1990, topped a poll conducted by the Iranian magazine FILM MONTHLY to determine the best Iranian films.) Although LEILA is the first film in his 32-year career to be released commercially in the U.S., we couldn't ask for a better introduction.

Leila (Leila Hatami) and Reza (Ali Mosaffa) are a happy couple, but the discovery of her infertility casts a pall over their marriage. Reza takes it in stride, insisting that he doesn't want children anyway, but his mother (Jamileh Sheikhi) proposes that he marry another woman - a practice allowed under Iran's legal code in some cases - in order to father a child. Although this prospect upsets Leila, she feels guilty enough to goad Reza into selecting another wife.

Mehrjui's career defies easy auteurist analysis, which may be one reason why it's taken so long for him to come to the attention of American festival programmers and distributors. (His second film, THE COW, did make a splash in 1970, taking the top prize at that year's Venice film festival, but it was long forgotten by the time Iranian cinema returned to Westerners' attention 10 years ago.) Kiarostami found his voice early: his first feature, THE TRAVELER, is a thematic and stylistic blueprint for most of his later films. In contrast, Mehrjui has re-invented himself several times, most obviously by concentrating on the poor in the films made before the revolution and switching focus to the middle class after it. While Mohsen Makhmalbaf has also gone through several sea changes, one can easily see his oeuvre as a steady build towards the maturity of GABBEH and A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE. (THE SILENCE, made in 1998, will be released later this year, and his latest film will play in competition at Cannes next week.) When I interviewed Mehrjui, he spoke dismissively about his two 80s films while insisting on the importance of MR. NAIVE, a 1970 film not included in last year's retrospective. While LEILA and THE COW rank with the best of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf's work, none of the other 4 Mehrjui films I've seen (SARA, THE CYCLE, THE PEAR TREE and HAMOON) comes close to their level of accomplishment. In fact, the soporific self-indulgence of THE PEAR TREE, a nostagic reverie about the childhood memories of a blocked middle-aged writer, drove me out of the theater after half an hour.

The narrative of LEILA proceeds through a lengthy string of meals, car rides and phone conversations. Scenes of the mixing and cooking of pudding at communal feasts frame it, and Leila's stomry emotions can be gauged by the meals that come in between. She and Reza are happiest on the rare occasions when they can dine all by themselves. When his mother drops by unexpectedly while she is preparing a Chinese dinner, she gets so upset that she lets a pot of coffee overflow and winds up putting the vegetables she's sliced back in the refrigerator. At a later dinner party, she becomes overcome with nausea. Their cell phone becomes a malign presence, constantly interrupting their privacy. Leila and Reza can never truly be alone, so their marriage can't help reflecting the larger inequities of Iranian society.

While Leila and Reza argue a great deal at first, she grows less talkative as her despair mounts, and her face freezes into a stoic grimace. Rather than having them scream at each other constantly, Mehrjui sometimes shoots them in a two-shot with one character out of focus or bathes them in stylized lighting to convey the tension in their relationship. LEILA has little in common with the naturalism of Kiarostami and the filmmakers (such as Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi) whom he's influenced, and it feels sui generis even in the context of other Mehrjui films. As powerful as Hatami and Mosaffa's performances are, much of the film's power stems from of its elegant mise-en-scéne and extremely effective use of expressionist devices like superimpositions, fades (to red and yellow), filters and overhead shots. When I first saw it, I was initially frustrated by its slow pace, but by the end, the cumulative effect of this deliberation became clear. Years seem to pass by slowly for both the audience and the couple as they drag themselves through an agonizing set of decisions.

When Mehrjui participated in a Q&A session after a screening of LEILA at the Walter Reade last year, several Iranian-American women expressed outrage at its sexual politics. Anyone who expects it to deliver a direct attack on male abuse of patriarchal power will be disappointed, since all the pressure on Leila to accept another wife stems from Reza's mother, an in-law from hell if there ever was one. However, she's accepted sexist values to the point where she treats Leila as an object whose worth lies mostly in her ability to bear children. While Leila often behaves manipulatively, she's hardly malicious: her passive-aggressive behavior stems largely from confusion about the contradictions between her needs and her socially imposed sense of duty. Godfrey Cheshire has a point when he suggests that the film may "absolve men of responsibility for a practice of which they are obviously the prime beneficiaries." (It's worth noting that none of its minor female characters share Leila's masochism.) However, Reza's admirable reluctance to force Leila into an uncomfortable situation changes nothing about the double standard placed on (and internalized by) men and women. In SARA, an overtly feminist adaptation of A DOLL'S HOUSE, Mehrjui depicted a crafty, rebellious woman trying to take control over her life. Here is the flipside: a devastating portrait of a woman's tragic self-destruction.

While Mehrjui has cited THE BICYCLE THIEF as the film that made him want to become a director, THE COW uses neo-realist conventions as the base material for a story that eventually takes on surreal, even mythic overtones, and LEILA is a similarly unconventional melodrama. Leila herself recalls her story in a voice-over recited after Reza's second marriage, and Mehrjui adopts a similarly distanced perspective. One can easily empathize with her dilemma, but it's far more likely to provoke anger and dismay than tears. Sadly, her behavior seems both foolish and inevitable, and we can only watch and ponder how her life could have turned out more happily.