In the opening scene of Leila, we're shown, through an Iranian holy ceremony, the intimacy of a present-day Iranian family. But family ties are strained and the modern world is tested as Leila (Leila Hatami) and her husband, Reza (Mohamad Reza Sharifinia), discover that she will never be able to bear children. Although Reza repeatedly affirms that he loves Leila more than he wants children, his autocratic mother thinks otherwise. The plot unfolds around the newlyweds as Reza's mother (Jamileh Sheikhi) puts increasing pressure on Leila to let her son take a second wife who can bear him a child. But the real drama centers on Leila; overwhelmed with the guilt of her own infertility, she decides to obey the mother's wishes over her husband's, and over her own happiness.
The tension in the film grows as Leila becomes more submissive and Reza rejects one potential spouse after another. In the end Reza also submits, choosing a divorced woman to be the object of his second nuptial. Leila maintains an obedient silence and even assists with the arrangements. She selects the wedding ring, cleans the house (hiding her personal belongings), and even makes the bed for the new couple. Tight closeups of Leila's face chronicle the pained situation. Enriching her story are symbolic images such as a pot overflowing with tea, suggesting her own tears; two boiled eggs, suggesting her hardened ovaries; and the sound of her rival's wedding gown as it makes its way to the wedding chamber.
The story of a woman who cannot bear children is a universal one. But here it's an ancient tale inserted in the middle of a well-developed Iranian society. While some might find the comfort and prosperity of the Iranian economy in the film to be exaggerated, the story is, from an Islamic point of view, an honest depiction of the culture and lifestyle. While Leila shows us snazzy cars and VCRs, it also depicts a culture that prohibits women from driving, forces them to wear strict Islamic dress, and allows polygamy. The resolution of the conflict feels realistic, but far from what we in the West would consider acceptable, or moral. The film courageously unveils the contradictions in Iran by presenting a woman who not only suffers societal restraints, but who must also choose between love and sacrifice.
Opening at the Bill Cosford Cinema, University of Miami, off Campo Sano Ave, Coral Gables; 305-284-4861.
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In contrast to this portrayal of women, Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui also shows us a very tolerant and loving husband, thus emphasizing the positive values of a new Iranian generation. Reza wants Leila to ignore his mother; he wants his marriage to be about love, not simply procreation. Even Reza's father is against a second marriage, but neither of the men can stop it.
Leila stands with other recent Iranian films that boldly break from the censorship codes imposed by the Iranian government, including Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in '97) and The White Balloon (winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes and Best Foreign Film from the New York Film Critics Circle), and Gabbeh by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. These filmmakers have attempted to establish an authentic Iranian film genre, one opposed to the misogynist, often bigoted, Islamic, "anti-imperialist" cinema, which underscores the view that a woman's only value depends on her ability to breed a male heir.
Nonetheless Mehrjui still had to contend with limitations imposed by a low-budget production and some degree of censorship. But unlike many directors working within such confines, he didn't resort to simple characterization or to treating his subjects allegorically, with romantic naiveté. Mehrjui shows a deep sense of understanding and skill, creating characters so fleshy they appear capable of being touched. This impression is certainly helped by the chromatic palette of the film, highlighting the artistry of Mahmoud Kalari, the cinematographer behind the images.
The director's treatment of Leila invites comparisons with Italian Neorealism and some Eastern European films of past decades. But in spite of is meticulous plot and fine visual imagery, the film can be too obsessive, resulting in an overlong 125-minute run time.