Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Marmoulak: An Iranian Film With a Universal Message

I never buy the latest electronics. The first purchasers can help the manufacturer iron out the glitches. I want something that works the first time. Marmoulak (The Lizard) came out in 2004. It was one of the top Iranian films of all time. It was pulled from circulation because it was reputed to have shown disrespect to the Islamic clergy. I feel that it made profound and universal points that would resonate in any society.

Its main character, a man named Reza was convicted one two many times and sentenced to a long stretch in prison. A sadistic warden who couched his torment of Reza in terms of rehabilitation made his life constant misery. Eventually, Reza attempted suicide. In the hospital, he had a room mate who was an imam who encouraged him with the statement that "There are as many paths to G-d as there are people." Reza escaped by stealing the imam's clothes, hiding out in a small town and becoming their imam. The deference shown Reza the criminal when he dressed up as an imam brought out the better side of his nature. Reza in turn had an uplifting effect on his congregation.

I was expecting a film that would trash the clergy and make fun of the respect shown to clothing and to social status. It was nothing of the sort. I have read chassidic stories that made the same point in a Jewish context, that adhering to external forms had the potential of tapping into inner goodness. The film was set in modern day Iran. Even though it portrayed the clergy and society's attitudes towards it, there was nothing in the film that was subversive. The story of how the film was received by the Iranian government is one of great insecurity. There are plenty of abuses of authority by the government and clergy, from dealing in confiscated property to "temporary marriages." None of these matters got anything more that fleeting mention in "Marmoulak." Despite this, the film was of lasting importance, making points that would be valid in many different religious societies.

My only disappointment in watching the movie (on DVD) was its low technical quality. The subtitles,( which were white lettering) were illegible when they appeared against white or pastel backdrop. Despite this, it was possible to figure out much of what was going on during these (for non Iranians) clouded moments.The film had relaxed standards for profanity and strict standards of modesty. Apparently, words that are quite vulgar in one society are considered mild in another.

Because Marmoulak was banned, it was not distributed abroad through official channels. The DVD circulating in the west is based upon one of a number of bootleg copies. I would definitely give this film a five star rating and a PG 13 (only for language) I hope my readers will find a way to watch this great film.

The clip below is one of my favourite scenes in the movie, in which Reza goes back to visit the prison as an imam rather than a prisoner.

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