Donya (2003): “You Have Exhumed My Life.”

When we first see real estate mogul, Hadj Reza Enayat (Mohamad Reza Sharifinia) he is collapsed in a chair, his swollen feet being washed by his whining wife (Gohar Kheirandish). Hadj is a grotesque person, in our first impression. He sneezes repeatedly. His feet are disgusting. And he appears to have no sympathy for his wife’s concerns, despite the fact that yes, she is a rather annoying sniggling creature. His plan, to sell their giant house and break it up into apartments, and then move himself and his wife into one of the flats in an apartment building he owns, has caused his wife much distress. She loves the house. Why would he deny her the happiness of living there? She begs for an answer and he sneezes in her face. The scene is played comedically. The characters are stock, and the situation is familiar to anyone who has been married for a long time, and who knows long-married couples.

It took me a couple of viewings to click in to what was going on in Donya, the 2003 Iranian film directed by Manuchehr Mosayyeri, and starring Hedye Tehrani in the title role (an actress I have written about quite a bit: Fireworks Wednesday, Party, Siavash, Shirin, Hemlock.) Because she is the lead, and because she is so beautiful, humorous, and likable, my feelings were naturally swayed to her point of view. And Hadj seemed grotesque to me, a bully and a hypocrite. Clearly the film couldn’t be asking me to sympathize with him, could it? This is one of those instances when a film requires you to imagine watching it in the country in which it was made, and imagine the issues with which a local audience would already be familiar. This was how I watched Donya the second time through, and an entirely different film emerged. It was still comedic, and despite Hadj’s sometimes horrible behavior, he emerged as the clear sympathetic lead, and she the conniving dame out of film noir. There are still complexities in evidence, but there can be no doubt that we are meant to weep for him at the end when he says, “You have exhumed my life.” My initial response to it was, “Well, you’re horrible, Hadj, you are a sexist pig, a violent father, a conniving lying bully, one of those horrible people who makes a huge show of being pious and then doesn’t live in a holy manner, so you deserve to have your life exhumed.” And Donya seemed pleasant, for the most part, and yet determined to not let Iran and its silly prudish rules control her (the character has spent most of her life abroad).

In general, I don’t watch Iranian films to “learn about their culture”, although that is often a byproduct. I watch them because they make good movies, and I love the style and depth that even a soap opera/noir like Donya brings to the table. I know all the main players, in terms of actors, and it’s fun to see them pop up in different projects. I have gotten to know them, like a repertory company. Iranian film couldn’t be shallow if it tried. So I enjoy watching films from a culture that is a questioning, bold, and intellectual one. Besides, “learning about another culture” is for academics. Iranian film tackles love and marriage and crime and class and family, just like any other film industry in any other country. Human beings all worry about the same things, and we all go insane when we fall in love.

That being said, Donya presented a challenge, and a welcome challenge. Once I changed the filter, and saw Hadj as the clear lead, I could see the fun that the film was poking at Tehrani’s character, Donya. I had to think like an Iranian, to put it poorly. Once I sat through it the second time, Hadj emerged as a pathetic and human character, ridiculous, yes, but doing his best. Yes, he’s a bully and a religious hypocrite, but that is where the humor comes in. Look at how unscrupulously he behaves towards his wife, and yet there he is massaging his prayer beads at every moment and berating his son for “playing around” with a girl. I imagine Hadj would seem hilarious to current Iranian audiences, and a very familiar kind of character: the conservative religious guy being befuddled and bamboozled by modernism. He’s not treated in Donya as a serious menace to society. He got the name “Hadj” even though he never made the trip to Mecca, something that his wife throws back in his face during a terrible argument. He wants to seem pious, but it’s all for show. He’s pathetic, but not in a tragic or malevolent way. (Side note: actor Sharifinia has been around for a long time, and came out as a big supporter of Ahmadinejad in 2009, which led to Iranians berating him on his Facebook page which then had to be taken down.)

So let’s get down to specifics. It’s a soap opera, as well as a swirling family drama. Hadj and his wife have two grown children, a college-age son (played by the wonderful Soroosh Goodarzi, a familiar actor to Iranian film fans; he was heartbreaking as the sickly brother in Party), and a married daughter. Hadj runs a successful real estate business, and one day a forthright and confident single woman (Hedye Tehrani) comes into his office to complain. One of his agents proposed marriage to her while showing some houses. “Are you running a marriage service?” she snaps at Hadj, who, from the first moment he looks at her, falls deeply in love (this is signified by a blast of dramatic strings, a theme repeated throughout the film whenever he looks at her – it’s quite funny).

Donya is there to complain and he can’t help but condescend to her, due to his patriarchal position. “Sister, let’s talk about this -” he soothes, and she retorts, “I’m not your sister, I’m not your mother, I’m not your daughter, I’m a client and I don’t want to be proposed to when I’m looking at houses.” To conciliate her, he takes her out to look at his properties. At first, boldly, he takes her to see his own house, the house he actually lives in, but then has Donya peel away when he sees his wife coming out the front door. As was established in the first scene, Hadj wants to move out of his house and sell it, but his wife objects. So we see immediately that Hadj is acting in opposition to his wife. Donya, who is at the wheel, argues with him for the rest of the scene about why he won’t go back and show her that house. That is the house she wants. To placate her yet again, he takes her to an apartment building he owns and shows her the palatial apartment (“with Jacuzzi”, he informs her) on the 5th floor. Donya strolls around, looking in cupboards, and keeps saying to Hadj in a wheedling voice, “But I want that house, Hadj.” In a very funny moment, she goes into an empty bedroom and opens the closet door, only to see a man and a young woman hiding there, terrified.

It is Hadj’s son and his girlfriend. Donya is startled to find them there, but not more startled than the two love birds. The young man pleads with Donya in a whisper, “Please don’t say anything! He’s my father! Please!” and then goes back into the closet with the girl. Tehrani’s face is eloquent in the aftermath. It looks like she wants to burst into laughter. It made me like her. What made me like her even more was that she stalked out of the empty bedroom and confronted Hadj about all the roaches she saw in that other room, and says she wants to leave immediately. She acts as cover for the trapped lovers.

Events accelerate. Hadj, in an act of great piety and generosity, buys his wife tickets to the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Syria, for a holiday for a month. “You deserve it, you deserve to get away,” he says. She weeps in gratitude. Then there is a hilarious shot of his wife going to pray on the patio, as Hadj lies on the couch fanning himself. A perfect tableau of absurdity.

The second his wife is out of the picture, Hadj acts. He moves out of the family home and into the apartment building, where Donya has conceded and now lives on the 5th floor. He hires a contractor to start the renovations on his old house. And … he starts to fall more openly in love with Donya. She and he are neighbors now. She shows up at his door on occasion (with the same blast of dramatic strings that occurred on their first meeting). Her energy with him is no longer imperious, as it was in their first meeting. She treats him fondly, she seems to find him humorous, even touching on occasion.

There is one scene where Hadj has his son drilling in some curtain rods in their flat, but it’s at night, and Donya is disturbed from her meditation practice. She comes down to complain. She says, “The racket down here is disturbing my TM.” Hadj has no idea what she is talking about, but he turns around and starts yelling at his son, “What are doing drilling at this time of night? What is your problem?” He says to his son later, “What was she talking about? MTV?”

Donya is a modern woman. She was married abroad but got a divorce. “It’s hard to live with a sissy,” she tells Hadj. Her husband tried to control her, made her quit school, kept her under lock and key. While it may seem that Hadj, with his scruffy beard, omnipresent prayer beads, and traditional clothing, would represent everything she abhors about her culture, Donya appears to see beneath the surface to the essentially kindly man underneath. But there is more to Donya than meets the eye. For example, she strolls into the elevator in their building, lets the doors close, and then hits the alarm. She starts screaming in an overblown melodramatic way to get Hadj’s attention. She shouts to him that she has been “stuck in here for five hours” and she is “suffocating”. Hadj is panicked, racing up and down stairs trying to save her.

What is Donya up to? As the month goes on, she asks Hadj for help in buying furniture. The two start to hang out. They go out to dinner. They talk about their lives. She tells him he would look so much better if he shaved his beard. Hadj has a moment of soul-searching staring at himself in the mirror. He then shaves off his beard. He is clearly having a mid-life crisis. She also tells him that he should dye his hair. He does. When he shows up to work with jet black hair, no beard, and a dyed-black mustache, his colleagues all stop, frozen, staring at him. Nobody says anything. He walks away and they all look at each other, and one murmurs, “What has happened?” It’s hilarious.

I suppose it’s always funny to see a blowsy middle-aged man try to re-capture his youth. It’s a familiar trope in any culture. The transformation is radical. Suddenly there is Hadj taking tennis lessons, as Donya watches from the sidelines, eating ice cream as they stroll down the sidewalk, and, yes, running a race with her in a shadowy leafy lane, laughing like carefree kids. Suddenly Hadj is wearing track suits and backwards baseball caps. Hadj, your wife is returning in a couple of weeks. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? Your wife is not going to be down with this, I can tell you that right now.

The entire relationship is kept a secret from his children, and there is one tense scene when his family visits his apartment unexpectedly, and Donya is there, and he locks her in the bathroom telling her to not come out. Later she says to him, “Shame on you.” He bows his head in contrition. Meanwhile, there is the Romeo and Juliet situation of his son and his girlfriend, both students at the dental college in Tehran, and conducting a secret relationship. The two are good friends. But Hadj does not approve of spontaneous love relationships (unless it involves HIM), and has arranged for his son to marry a cousin. Unfortunately, the cousin is 13 years old. Hadj’s son pleads with his father, “I need to share interests with someone.” Hadj does not accept this line of talk. “You live with someone, you end up sharing interests.” Hadj’s son and his girlfriend have tortured secret conversations, and hide out in empty apartments owned by his father.

Donya runs into Hadj’s son in the apartment complex on occasion and jokes with him, “So you’re the empty closet man!” She ends up getting involved in the son’s life, and befriends the son’s girlfriend. Donya wants to help the two be together. “Do you love him?” Donya asks the girlfriend. The girlfriend’s eyes fill with tears. Donya hosts a co-ed party at her apartment for Hadj’s son, his girlfriend, and all of their friends, with blasting music and birthday cake. Naturally, the cops arrive. This kind of thing can’t go on in Tehran.

Hadj throws the son out. He asks Donya to be his second wife. Donya says that his first wife needs to be okay with it. Hadj tells her he will handle everything. He presents her with a marriage certificate and a rose at a romantic dinner. He now wears Western-style suits, has no beard, and looks vaguely like Saddam Hussein. Threatened by modern values in the context of his family, he starts to push his own boundaries when confronted with a modern woman who goes in for “TM”, has her own money, and stands up for herself. This is what lust can do, obviously: people often act insane when they are in the grips of lust. Hadj is so traditional that he cannot have an affair. They must make this legitimate. Unfortunately, he still cannot tell his family. He still hides Donya in the bathroom when the family comes over. And, in a confrontation in the stairwell, he slaps Donya across the face. The stress of Freedom is too much for this limited man. He reverts to type.

But Donya. What’s up with Donya? What about her stunt in the elevator? What about her continued insistence that she wants to move into “that house”? She couldn’t just befriend this man in order to get the real estate deal she wants. Because that would be horrible of her. But … is there another explanation? She seems fond of Hadj, and pleased when he begins to transform himself for her. She feels she can handle him, certainly, because it is obvious his feelings for her. Men are weak when they have feelings for you, they are easily manipulated. A mere month before, Hadj was lying on the couch like a pasha, fingering his prayer beads and fanning himself, as his pious wife prayed 2 feet away. There is no way that the tension of his transformation could hold. Something is going to snap. Does Donya realize what she has created?

The brilliance of Hedye Tehrani is that she does not protect herself as an actress in her roles. She is fearless about being judged for her characters’ perhaps sketchy motivations. I have written about her before in this context. Often stunningly beautiful people have an overwhelming desire to be liked, and this is understandable, because beauty like that has its own pressures. Tehrani is not interested in that kind of career. She plays complex characters, often with a deep depressive streak (she has played numerous suicidal women). She can be cold. She can be judgmental. She does not suffer fools. She is usually the smartest person in any room. Because of her beauty, she can get away with a lot. She knows it. Tehrani has a warmth and humor that radiates off the screen, but here her motivations seem suspect from the beginning. I thought of Barbara Stanwyck’s cold calculating Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Lana Turner’s Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice. These are women willing to use men in the most brutal of ways in order to get what they want. And what they want is often freedom, to be unfettered, to be released from the prison of their circumstances.

In this context, beauty is a deadly camouflage.

Although Donya is obviously poked fun at (her “TM” comment, the fact that every time we see her by herself in her apartment she is blasting Sade, or Trisha Yearwood), Tehrani plays her so sympathetically that it is difficult to assign malice to her behavior. This is one of the tricks of Donya (and there is a surprise ending), and one of the ways in which it works so well. Hadj is rather awful, and we all should be glad that he is not our father or our husband, but Donya? Donya is treacherous.

It is a great testament to Tehrani’s talent that we are as disoriented by her as Hadj is. That’s as it should be. Stanwyck and Turner created characters that seduced not only their gullible leading men but their audiences. They are nearly impossible to resist, and the tension comes from feeling worried for the naive male paramours, worried that they can’t see what is really going on.

It is also a testament to Sharifinia’s talent that he can make Hadj a lovable buffoon, as opposed to a villain. When he slaps Donya, revealing his true nature, it’s not that we forgive him. It’s that we saw it coming, we knew he wouldn’t be able to be a modern man, after all. The tension is too taut, the change too great. He is an unhappy person. He finds his wife annoying (as do we, in the audience). But he has sucked it up and then lords it over his son, telling him he should be willing to make the same sacrifices he did. The younger generation isn’t playing the game that way. They want personal happiness, they want choice. This enrages Hadj, not because he is evil and controlling, but because he was denied personal happiness from his culture’s rules, and who do these young people think they are, demanding more than he was allowed? He doesn’t just lust for Donya. He falls in love with her. He has never loved anyone, as he confesses to Donya. He got married young and never had the chance to experience what he is now feeling. As repulsive as the situation may be, it is understandable. Sharifinia plays it tragically as well as comedically. After a giant blowout where he throws his son out of the house, Hadj wanders around the apartment (filled with boxes being unpacked), and, in despair, sits on one of the boxes, which turns out to be empty and Hadj collapses into it. I rewound the moment 3 times because it was so funny.

His behavior is despicable, and on some level he knows it. He cannot keep the facade up forever. His wife is coming home in a couple of days. His two kids are now suspecting that something is going on with their dad. What’s with the hair dye? Why is he dancing around the kitchen singing to himself as he fries some eggs? To quote Hadj’s colleagues: “What has happened?” This is a very tight family, tension notwithstanding. Despite the fact that their religion allows a man to take a second wife, you know that it is going to be seen as a giant betrayal. The family unit will not survive it. There is a subtle critique of the traditional ways in that tension.

Donya was a huge hit in Iran and was billed as a comedy. It is a perfect example of an Iranian film that would never make it to our shores, because it’s not art-house enough, it’s not by a world-famous auteur like Kiarostami, it’s not political enough or angry enough. This is an inside job. Donya is Iranians talking to Iranians about the issues that they find funny, pressing, entertaining. It’s a fine film, tense, hilarious, and heartbreaking in the end. And interesting in every frame.

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