TEHRAN, Iran--Marmoolak ("the lizard"), a film by Iranian director Kamal Tabrizi about a convict who escapes prison in the cloak and turban of a cleric and becomes an accidental mullah, was a huge hit here. Ticket lines snaked around theaters. People bought tickets days in advance, breaking Iranian box-office records. Everyone, from schoolchildren to grandmothers, talked about the film. All wondered, out loud, how such an open criticism of the clergy could receive a screening permit from this theocratic regime.
The film was banned in several cities and eventually pulled from all theaters in Iran after a relatively short run. The head of the all-powerful, un-elected Guardian Council, Ayatollah Jannati, condemned Marmoolak publicly as "an insult to religion and the clergy."
The protagonist, Marmoolak, is a hardened prisoner, in for armed robbery, who meets a mullah in the prison infirmary. After a day of listening to the cleric's wisdom, Marmoolak escapes the prison hospital in the mullah's attire. He ends up in a small border town where his contacts can help him cross the border. The town is waiting for its newly appointed pastor, who, unbeknownst to them, is sick in Tehran. Marmoolak, looking exceptionally convincing in the garb of the godly, is mistaken as the eagerly awaited mullah. He plays along and becomes a popular preacher, while his quest for a passport and border crossing is delayed by a series of mishaps.
The thief reveals a certain natural flair in his new role. His improvised sermons, a mix of his own street wisdom and borrowed words from the mullah, are hysterical. At a loss for how to prolong a sermon, for example, Marmoolak goes into an analysis of Pulp Fiction, a movie made, he tells us, "by brother Tarantino." My fellow movie-goers burst into laughter at this point. Iranians keep up with Western trends through a thriving market of foreign contraband films.
With Marmoolak, the congregation's numbers increase and the local mosque converts into an upbeat and thriving town center. Marmoolak, eventually and by accident, becomes a godly man, helping people despite himself. The much-repeated mantra of the film, "There are as many ways to God as his creatures," first uttered by the mullah in the infirmary, is illustrated: a convict is freed by stealing clothes from a man of God. His new attire forces him to do good and help people. Despite his bad intentions, the thief becomes godly, bringing reconciliation and tolerance among the people he has successfully conned.
Marmoolak is distinctly different from the art-festival films that have come to define Iranian cinema in the West. The past two decades have seen the blooming of an indigenous style of Iranian film that has taken film festivals around the world by storm, including the successful Taste of Cherries by the renowned Abbas Kiarostami, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes 1997. Iranian festival films usually treat non-controversial themes against a rural backdrop, like Mohsen Makhmalbaaf's, Gabbeh, which made Time Magazine's top-10 list in 1996. They present a stylized and simple reality that intrigues Western audiences through its poetry and exoticism.
But for Iranians, these jashnvarehyee (made-for-festival) films, as they have been coined, have become a bore. They often fail to address issues touching the everyday lives of ordinary, cinema-going Iranians.
Marmoolak has the makings of a masterpiece, however, appealing to the film critics and the movie-going public equally. And like all great films, it comes with layers of meaning.
Marmoolak's first layer is its critical/comic skin. The film pointedly mocks the Shiite clergy, who are as popular here as were their Catholic counterparts in 16th century Europe. The way the thief fakes his Arabic during prayer and uses his new position in life to flirt with a pretty woman are a blatant mocking of religion in the Islamic Republic.
Parviz Parastouee is excellent as Marmoolak. His equal pleasure and discomfort at playing the role imposed on him by the stolen clothes is brilliantly balanced. His straight-shooting street wisdom, clumsily applied to the problems of his flock, is endearing.
The dialogue is superb, mixing the street slang and accent of the convict with the more formal language of the clergy. Marmoolak constantly uses the slang term "baa haal" (cool) when talking about God. The biggest laughter and cheer comes when he uses this language to tell a young devotee, filled with guilt about his illicit feelings for his fiancee, "if God didn't want you to commit sin then he would not have given you the tools for it (a play on words with "aalat," which means both genitals and tools)."
When I saw Marmoolak the theater roared with laughter almost throughout the film. My 80-year-old mother-in-law laughed heartier than I have ever seen.
There is another layer of meaning in the folds of Marmoolak, namely, the relationship forged between the convict-come-mullah and his flock. The people are eager to get help in solving the problems of their daily lives. Their goodwill turns the convict into the popular mullah that they so desperately need, and each is the better for it. Here is yet another way to God: the simple goodwill of the town people turns the convict into a man of religion.
The deepest layer of meaning, however, is a mystical one. It is this deep reading of Marmoolak that, perhaps, reveals the reason the regime's censors let it be screened. The film shows how even the most depraved of people can still be touched by the grace of God. Marmoolak is about how the donning of the clerical cloak can make a person godly despite his intentions. It is, in the end, the clerical cloak and turban in their most noble role, as vehicles for transforming souls, which are being celebrated in this powerful film.