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'The Lizard': Iran in the cinema's gaze

Word of an intriguing new Iranian film, Marmulak, had already spread to Europe several months before my planned visit to Tehran. In fact, the buzz had reached such a fever pitch that a friend suggested he secure tickets to a future showing even before my arrival in the country. As it turned out my trip was postponed and we decided to try to get the tickets once I was there.

queueQueuing for Marmulak in Tehran

Unfortunately, by that time the film had become so notorious that a succession of cinemas refused to sell tickets in advance and advised us to join the queue at least an hour before the movie was due to start. We did so, but not even this warning prepared us for the endless line that stretched across several city blocks.

The certain prospect of a long wait, coupled with the uncertain prospect of getting in, did little to dampen the ebullient mood of the moviegoers on the night. To understand modern Iranian life, one must appreciate the extraordinary sense of ennui that now envelops it. To put it bluntly, Iranians are bored stiff. Their television sets are filled either by the monotonous marathon of political and religious propaganda produced by the state broadcaster or the equally monotonous marathon of political propaganda and amateurish Iranian music videos produced by expatriate satellite channels beamed in from Los Angeles.

Even the most hardcore political junkies burn out quickly on this merciless menu of simplistic sloganeering exchanged incessantly between yesterday’s revolutionaries wearing turbans and would-be revolutionaries wearing toupees. As this battle between holy men and Hollywood rages on, dining out offers only a pallid escape. With few notable exceptions, restaurants in Tehran are bland and uninteresting. Iranians have never experienced their best cuisine outside the home and lately both the food and the tablecloths bear a disquieting resemblance to plastic.

No wonder, then, that there was such excitement about the appearance of a film that the government had seriously considered banning. Of course, no amount of hype can match the possibility of censorship as a promotional tool – witness Michael Moore’s classic employment of the technique at Cannes over Fahrenheit 9/11 – so Marmulak (“The Lizard”) had created an expectant Tehran hum before the first reel unlooped.

posterMarmulak poster

The tickets sold out just before we reached the box office; the fellow in charge finally relented to my cajoling by allocating to us a few of the balcony seats he had reserved for his friends. As the audience settled in, the air crackled with a mischievous thrill of anticipation: we were about to view a film that was teetering on the edge of banishment. Thankfully, this long adventure to the opening credits was not followed by anti-climax when the feature itself started.

Iran in the mirror of cinema

Marmulak is the delicious story of a convict – the eponymous Reza Marmulak, impeccably played by Parviz Parastui – who engineers his escape from imprisonment by stealing and wearing a mullah’s robes and turban. This opening twist reveals the subliminal tension in the film between two visions of religion: romanticised and satirical. The mullah whose garb is about to be stolen anticipates the theft but, taking pity on a seemingly kind-hearted criminal, chooses to ignore it.

Thus, the criminal turns into the cleric. But the fugitive, unable to hail a taxi on the streets of Tehran, soon discovers that the clothes of a mullah are a very mixed blessing in Iran’s capital city.

moonlightFrom Under the Moonlight

The story – similar in theme to another ambivalent Iranian film about clerics, Reza Mir-Karimi’s Under the Moonlight (2001) – tracks Reza’s journey to a small, remote rural settlement where he is mistaken for the new mullah arriving to take charge of the village mosque. It is in this setting that director Kamal Tabrizi meticulously portrays the different faces of contemporary Iran.

Two earnest young men are keen to gain the confidence of the new arrival, but the mullah’s presence causes conflict between them: one struggles to reconcile strict obedience to his father’s religious principles and his preparation for training as a cleric with his amorous attentions towards a young lady; the other, a perfectly dogmatic creature, fires intricate religious questions as fast as the wily “Lizard” can slither past them. This interplay between arid theology and the complexities of earthly being reflects the realities of life in contemporary Iran where many young people constantly push the boundaries imposed on them – while a smaller group of self-appointed guardians looks upon them disapprovingly from the ever more precarious perch of moral indignation.

As the enterprising cleric tries to survive the burdens of his ostensible calling and the risks of being exposed, a cruel prison warden ruthlessly pursues his escaped quarry. Kamal Tabrizi’s presentation of the prison guard as the film’s principal antagonist suggests that he is trying to convince his audience that the “bad guys” are not the mullahs as such but heartless, heavy-handed authorities in any guise.

This fine distinction between religious and authoritarian elements is important, and is often overlooked by those viewing the film as a straightforward critique of the mullahs or the regime in Iran. It reveals a subtle mixture of critique and apologetics of the realities of power in Iran that should not be ignored.

escapingReza Marmulak makes a getaway

This creative suppleness zigzags through the film like a lizard’s path. Soon enough, the villagers warm hugely to their curious new import and embrace the preparations for a religious holiday with joyous fervour. The camera bathes the scenes of village life with a happy, warm glow. It is as if Tabrizi is attempting to temper a nostalgic vision of an idealistic Islamic country with the clever irony that it’s all unfolding under the tolerant gaze of an unreconstructed criminal.

Here, the film satirically evokes the yearning for an enlightened clergy presiding over fulfilled, devoted followers against the mundane, embittered actuality of life in today’s Iran. Some mullahs can indeed be thieves, the film appears to declare – but if they knew how better to perform the role, they could turn their mosques from places of power into havens of humanity.

A long way home

After the film, I could not decide whether I thought it was witty, subversive critique or sly, subtle propaganda in favour of a change of social direction. Is Tabrizi trying to mollify the mullahs while insisting that some are corrupt, or trying to mollify the people while insisting that the problem is not religion itself but those who represent it? The quality of the film is that it is open to either interpretation. The conclusion I ultimately settled on is that this very ambiguity is its point and its message: something that in itself represents a vigorous challenge to misplaced, simplistic certitudes – of either external critics or internal rulers.

reza makes a pact
“At your service, Reza the lizard”

It was with these issues still unresolved that the credits rolled, the audience cheered, and we rushed out of the cinema into the crisp air of a late spring evening in Tehran. As my friends animatedly discussed the film, I noticed a few workers sleeping on the construction site of an open building, covered only by worn blankets. It couldn’t be easy to sleep there in the cold, and unprotected from the commotion of the busy street. We were all very far, I thought, from the village that Reza Marmulak had discovered.

Also on Film in openDemocracy’s Arts & Cultures theme:

  • Ed Hayes & Flora Roberts, “Between life and death: two Iranian films” (January 2002)

  • Ed Hayes, “10 x Ten: Kiarostami’s journey" (December 2002)

  • Maggie Loescher & Maryam Maruf, “Osama and Afghan cinema: an interview with Siddiq Barmak” (March 2004)

  • Laila Kazmi, “Between Pakistan and the world: an interview with Sharmeen Obaid” (July 2004)

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