In most circumstances, the narrative of Leila -- a couple unable to conceive dealing with the incessant interference of nosy relatives -- would make for domestic satire, a send-up of people always finding astonishing ways to pole vault over taste. In Dariush Mehrjui's hands, though, it becomes something altogether more devastating, a demonstration of social mores restricting Iranians, even when the government is nowhere to be seen.
We meet Leila (Leia Hatami) in a brief flashback as she recounts meeting her future husband: over graceful shots, Leila helps thicken a cauldron of pudding by adding spices and sauces to a white liquid until a yellow paste forms and is spooned out into bowls. As the gathered people eat, Leila notices a man at another table. Three months later, she and the man, Reza (Ali Mosaffa), have married and act like high school sweethearts. Reza delights in making Leila laugh and brings home absurd gifts such as a gigantic stuffed animal to amuse her. He always succeeds. With only a handful of scenes, Mehrjui communicates their deep love for one another and gives the audience a relationship rare even in Western movies.
On her birthday, however, Leila learns she is infertile, and at the birthday party Reza's family throws for her, open hints are dropped as to the family's desire for a child. The mother (Jamileh Sheikhi) even walks into a medium-close-up and addresses the camera directly as she speaks of how much she wants her son, her only male child, to have a son. On the way home, Leila broaches the subject of not being able to have children with Reza, laughing as she does so to make the question as innocent as possible. Reza says he would love that, as he does not want kids.
Then, they head to the doctor for official results, and the laughter that rolled out of them dies in the throat as Leila sits numbly as the doctor calmly and clinically describes the couple's inability to have children. As the words wash over Leila, the soundtrack dampens as if submerged underwater, sounds dully thumping against her dumbstruck face. Mehrjui cuts to the couple back home after the two have told some relatives, and for the rest of the film, the phone rings. Mothers, uncles, siblings, everyone calls up to offer advice or inquire about eggs and sperm. The sexual potency of family trees are also defended. The horrifying invasion of privacy is hilarious at first, the sheer effrontery of it making every joke about pushy Catholic or Jewish families meaningless in the face of these Muslim families.
Reza does not care about his wife's infertility, but his mother will not accept her son not producing an heir, and Leila begins a series of tests and treatments to try to find some way to conceive, despite the fact neither she nor Reza particularly wants a child. After teasing the audience with a vision of a modern couple living in Iran, tradition breaks through, and what might have been humorous morphs into a heartbreaking horror film of the insurmountable crush of ingrained codes of conduct.
Few sounds are as completely annoying as the ring of a European-style telephone, but in no time at all I decided I'd rather hear it ring eternally than for Leila or Reza to answer it and let relatives torment them further. Both Leila and Reza know full-well what every phone call will bring, and each tells the other not to answer. And yet, they answer. Every time. It's like a damn Buñuel film: some force compels them to answer the phone, to invite the abuse and to never tell anyone to shove it.
And no one interferes like Reza's mother. She is not the first, nor shall she be the last, character I have wanted to reach through the screen and slap. But that's far too gentle a punishment for someone like her. Sporting giant, bug-eyed glasses on a flattened face, the mother resembles an aged Mafia don, a figure who exudes deadly, irrefutable authority. To say she acts like a royal bitch over her sister-in-law would be akin to saying Stalin "didn't play well with others." Laying on the guilt, the mother attacks Leila with the full force of Iranian tradition, speaking in gentle tones but making her manipulative insults plain as day. She conveys that same subtle obviousness, that abstract bluntness, that normally makes Iranian cinema so joyous, layered and humanist. Here, that power is used for evil. In one scene, the mother brings over a necklace as a gift, but the exchange feels stilted, and the jewelry comes with a price: she wants Leila to step aside and allow Reza to take a second wife.
Remarkably, Leila internalizes this idea. The mother bats away any protest about Reza's own wishes and twists them around to throw back at Leila. Oh, he said he didn't want any children? Well that's only because he did not want to hurt your feelings, of course! The Machiavellian ploy succeeds: not only does Leila retroactively adjust the meaning of her husband's tender reassurances, she then starts interpreting every new statement from her husband as further proof that she must allow him to find a wife who can bear him a child. Reza, baffled, attempts to make her see reason, not going to tell his mother to shove it because he can't. Mehrjui does not simplify Reza by making him a spineless momma's boy who clicks his heels together when his mother beckons, but he finds himself as helpless as Leila to the old crone's powers. Instead, he vents his frustration with his wife for not standing up for herself, though he's just as guilty.
Over time, the two grow set in their desperate attempts to make the other happy. They simply disagree on what that happiness entails: Leila believes Reza wants a child and thus encourages him to take another wife. Reza just wants Leila to say "stop" so he can cease pursuing new brides. Both have the power to end this, yet both carry on.
Part of the mounting horror of the couple's situation comes from those who pressure them into fragmenting. Reza comes from wealth: his family lives in a multi-level house with modern amenities and gadgets. But it is they, not Leila's loving and more accepting middle-class relatives, who follow in the strictness of tradition. Having watched this film so closely on the heels of Crimson Gold, which culminates in a bravura sequence in a rich man's lavish apartment, I could not help but think how, despite the issues Iranian filmmakers have simply getting their films played at home, much less abroad (though in many cases this is easier than domestic distribution), some target a Western-thinking audience. It would be so nice to see the more Westernized Iranians holding aloft the beacon for social, not just technological, progression, that the inevitable fall of the theocracy in favor of commerce would also bring social liberation. But the problem is too complicated for such simplistic hopes, and whether it's the playboy misogynistically ranting about what he thinks is period blood on his bathroom tiles or a manipulative matriarch enforcing ancient codes of filial succession, the rich and more educated do not hold the keys to deliverance.
But let me back up. It would not be fair to blame the whole of Reza's family, but those who protest hold their tongues until they can slip away from the matriarch. The father reminded me of Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause, a henpecked weakling who sits by feebly as the mother domineers. But the father here has a moment to shine in a brief but powerful conversation with his son in a car. Away from his wife, the dad reveals the wisdom behind his silence, and he tells his son directly to go home and stop this foolishness and to stop blaming Leila for being warped by the mother. Meanwhile, Reza's sisters, who head out looking like the witches in Macbeth (if, instead of speaking in vague portents, they spoke in REAL TALK) and sit Leila down and try to talk sense into her. They lambaste their mother and even take Reza to task for not silencing the old woman and essentially tell Leila to grow a spine.
The two love each other, and that love is so strong that, when twisted only slightly, spirals out of control until the desire to please the other leads to the relationship's destruction. At times, their original, tender love bleeds through, such as the scenes of Reza driving out to meet a potential second wife. Leila accompanies him to each one, getting out of the car and walking around a park as Reza goes on a date. It is a maddening sight we endure over and over, but when Reza returns, he describes each date by honing in on faults and tics, making each person into an absurd caricature, and Leila laughs wildly just like she used to do. One time, Leila notes a potential wife's father is an army colonel, and Reza spins it into a joke about how the woman is actually the colonel and the two start speculating as to what deformities she might have picked up in battle, from artificial limbs to gold teeth. The scene says more about the pair's undying affection than a thousand "I love yous." Earlier in the movie, when Leila discovered her infertility, she quietly asks Reza what he wants to do. With a casual tone, he says “We could stay home, whip up something to eat, moon over each other...then maybe watch a movie?" God, I wanted so badly for a film without true conflict. Leila and Reza could stand as proof of a couple that is not only interesting when happy but engrossing, and to see them suffer under the intangible but crushing weight of social expectation breaks my heart.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Hatami and Mossafa have such an effortless chemistry that one can only respond to the news they married a few years after making the movie with "Of course." Hatami, who got her major breakthrough with the film, is magnetic, and not just because she's one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. She's capable of owning the film after her character completely changes and mires herself in a situation that could invite audience scorn. With a less talented actress, the crowd might have turned on the film, but Hatami modulates the character's progression, making her ossifying emotions believable and heartbreaking. Hatami reminds me of Amy Acker, not only in a surprising physical resemblance but in acting styles: Hatami isn't playing Leila, isn't going through some motions to boost her profile. That she shares her name with her character clues us in, but she simply is Leila. She finds the basic emotional purity in complicated narrative progression and wrings gulfs of meaning from the simplest actions.
Hatami carries the film, but the supporting players do their part. Sheikhi is one of the great understated villains, capable of destroying opposition through mere suggestion. I half-expected her to throw an arm around Cassio and proclaim reassuringly "'Tis a night of revels!" in-between her protracted warfare on Leila. Also memorable was Mohamed Sharifinia as Leila's uncle, a boisterous, overconfident but lovable goof whose constant butting in belies the strategy behind his intrusion: he makes the situation about himself to distract the constant scrutiny from Leila and Reza. He, like everyone else in the film, is a person, not a character written to be the quirky comic relief.
While I will not reveal exactly what happens at the end, I cannot hold back the immense sadness I felt when Leila stopped. Iranian film, by virtue of the travails inflicted upon it by repressive government authority, carries innate political qualities, or maybe that's just the expectation. At the start of the film, Leila and Reza were such a pure couple that I not only wished them happiness but projected onto them a hope for Iran's future. Then the world collapses on them, and the social implications fall to the wayside to make room for the full horror of a loving couple unwittingly imploding through the warped displays of that love. Whatever deeper meanings lie within the film, Leila works directly, the acting and the inevitability of the direction and pacing suffocating the initial burst of joy until it turns purple and goes limp. It makes the confused commitment of Breaking the Waves seem childish in comparison.