Dariush Mehrjui: “Everything Is Political”

Dariush Mehrjui

On Saturday night, English-language wire services began picking up on reports from the IRNA, Iran’s official news agency, that confirmed the horrific news many of us had first seen on social media but hadn’t yet dared to believe. Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui and his wife and screenwriting partner, Vahideh Mohammadifar, had been stabbed to death. Their daughter, Mona, discovered their lifeless bodies in their home in Karaj, a city about thirty miles west of Tehran. Mehrjui was eighty-three and Mohammadifar was in her early fifties.

According to the IRNA, the murderer remains unidentified and the motive is unknown. “Like most Iranian directors,” notes the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Roxborough, “Mehrjui fought state censorship his entire career, but he was one of the more outspoken critics of Tehran’s Islamic regime. Last year, he posted a video blasting the government for the suppression of his last, now likely final, feature, A Minor.

Two of Mehrjui’s films will screen in New York as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing series, Iranian Cinema before the Revolution, 1925–1979, The Cow (1969) on October 26 and November 25 and The Cycle (1974) on November 1 and 25. Surveying the series for RogerEbert.com, Godfrey Cheshire, the author of In the Time of Kiarostami: Writings on Iranian Cinema, writes that the roots of the Iranian New Wave can be traced to two sophomore features from 1969, The Cow and Masoud Kimiai’s Gheysar, “a propulsive crime drama of murder and retribution.”

Cheshire notes that both directors were twenty-seven at the time and that “their films and subsequent careers described the sides of a spectrum that would characterize Iranian cinema in the future. Kimiai’s cinema was more populist, with a wide appeal to many Iranian audiences. Mehrjui’s cinema attracted a more educated, urban viewership and offered a model for the Iranian film that would go abroad and impress foreign critics and cinephiles.” For Cheshire, Mehrjui “rivals [Abbas] Kiarostami and [Asghar] Farhadi as the most impactful of Iranian directors.”

When he was a twelve-year-old cinephile, Mehrjui built his own 35 mm projector, rented prints, and sold tickets around his Tehran neighborhood. In his early twenties, he studied at UCLA, where one of his teachers was Jean Renoir. In 1964, he founded a literary journal, Pars Review, and the following year, he returned to Tehran, where he taught literature and lectured on cinema. In 1966, he made his first feature, Diamond 33, a James Bond parody that didn’t take off at the box office.

For his second feature, Mehrjui turned to leftist writer Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, a perpetual thorn in the side of the Pahlavi government. Sa’edi suggested that they adapt his short story about a middle-aged farmer, Masht Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami), who owns the only cow in a tiny village in southern Iran. Hassan and his wife have no children, but the cow is pregnant, and Hassan dotes on her excessively, almost comically. When the cow dies under mysterious circumstances, Hassan mourns to the degree that he begins to become the cow, eating her hay and sleeping where she slept.

“More than a mellifluous flow,” wrote Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook in 2020, The Cow “lingers in the mind as a collection of intrusions and interruptions: images of hands emerging comically out of darkened windows to serve afternoon tea; a group of village elders peering pensively into a barn window, crammed into a symmetric, planimetric frame within a frame; the wrinkled faces of the elderly women (presumably non-actors) who carry out a ritual mourning, and then later prepare for the celebratory wedding rites. There’s a tactility to such images, to say nothing of the unexpectedly open narrative that contains it, all creating the distinct impression of a filmmaker exploring a set of expressive, expansive possibilities.”

The Cow was one of the first films to receive funding from the Ministry of Culture and Arts, but the shah objected to the image it projected of an impoverished nation populated by backward, superstitious peasants. In 1971, The Cow was smuggled to the Venice Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize, and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it was reported that Ayatollah Khomeini considered the film so important that he refused to impose a ban on cinema.

Writing for the Village Voice in 1972, Amos Vogel declared that The Postman, an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck set in contemporary Iran, “firmly establishes Mehrjui as a major talent whose successful fusing of pathos and humor and preoccupation with the poor resembles in its ferocity nothing less than Chaplin or the early De Sica.” In The Cycle, based on another story by Sa’edi, Ali (Saeed Kangarani) takes his ailing father (Ali Nassirian) to a hospital and stumbles into a cesspool of corruption as administrators buy and sell the contaminated blood of derelicts and junkies.

“As a metaphor, the hospital-blood lab relationship is rich,” wrote David Moran in the Boston Phoenix in 1979. “Various levels and operations intersect here. Ali joins this society of con men precisely through learning the ways of one of the few institutions in it that do any good. Such potential cliches are powerfully handled; the effortless authenticity of the acting helps incalculably.” Writing for Movie Mezzanine in 2015, Amir Soltani noted that Mehrjui’s satirical hit The Tenants (1987) inspired a “myriad of comedy TV series” in Iran, and that Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) is “immensely indebted to Mehrjui’s Hamoun,” a divorce drama from 1989.

Leila (1997) “seems like the most brilliant depiction of a marriage gone to hell that I’ve ever seen,” wrote Amy Taubin in the Voice in 1999. Leila (Leila Hatami) and Reza (Ali Mosaffa) are very much in love, and when she learns she can’t have children, Reza is just fine with that. But his mother is not. She insists that he take a second wife and keep the family line rolling. Reza leaves that decision to Leila. “It’s a classic double bind—self-hating women who manipulate passive-aggressive men to their own disadvantage,” wrote Taubin. “Mehrjui is an amazingly subtle, almost self-effacing filmmaker.”

For Ali Moosavi at Film International, The Pear Tree (1998), starring Homayoun Ershadi as a blocked writer and Golshifteh Farahani, making her debut at fourteen, as his long-lost first love, is the greatest film Mehrjui made after the Revolution. “I don’t make directly political films to promote a particular ideology or point of view,” Mehrjui once said. “But everything is political.”

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