Dariush Mehrjui, director of Leila, is a figure who embodies the entire 20th journey of Iranian film. Check out his stunning bio here. His films have often been festival favorites, garnering great international acclaim. His journey as a film-maker is a personal one (as can be said about most Iranian directors – they make what pleases them, and hopes it will pass muster with the regime) – he tackles issues that matter to him (the struggle of post-revolutionary Iran to find its way) – and also the always-thorny issue of women in Iran. He is fearless, when you know what he is up against. In Leila he brings up the unspeakable, and examines it, delves into it, lets the events play themselves out – without too much intervention on his part. The implications are enormous, his critique implicit.
Leila (played by Leila Hatami) and Reza (played by Ali Mosaffa) are newlyweds. (Also, I just love that these two actors are married in real life. The rapport you see between them is genuine.) And on Leila’s birthday she discovers that she is infertile. So begins a year of testing, and medical consultations, and increasing desperation. Reza tries to assure Leila that he did not marry her for babies. He doesn’t even really like kids. He loves her. But unfortunately, his family feels otherwise. Reza is the only son in a family of daughters, and it is not just inconceivable (bad pun) that he will not bring forth a child (preferably a boy) but not an option. This is a modern-day story – these are not peasants, or illiterate third-world people. They live in luxury. They have cars and good jobs. But Reza’s mother (a horrifying woman, a true Medusa, everyone turns to stone when they look at her – she’s played with a relish by Jamileh Sheikhi) insists that Reza WILL have a child, and he must take a second wife. It is this journey, the fight over the second wife (which implies the fight in Iran between tradition and modernism), that makes up the true story of the film. So not only does Leila have to deal with the fact that she cannot get pregnant, an issue that most women have strong feelings about – regardless of their culture – she has to deal with the fact that Reza’s family believes she needs to be put aside, for other concerns. She will be “first wife”, everyone reassures her, but there will, indeed, be a second wife. Reza has all kinds of feelings about this, too – because his match with Leila is a true love match. She is the only woman for him. But the family will not be denied. And so Leila and Reza find themselves in an upside-down world, a world that sometimes is horrifying, insensitive, and yet what are they to do? They fight, they make up, they find the humor in the situation (which is truly amazing to watch – and makes you ache for them … because you can feel their love, the fact that they can crack up about how absurd it all is) … but in the end, what is there to do? Should they run away? Where no one knows them, where they can just live without the pressure of their families to be a certain way? Leila and Reza return from the infertility doctor with the bad news, and are at odds with one another. They don’t know where to look, what to say. We have already seen them previous to this scene, laughing and talking and making fun of things … so their silence is deafening, and we feel the loss of their earlier comradeship. Leila says to Reza, “What should we do tonight?” Reza opens the fridge and looks in, contemplating, and replies, “We could stay home, whip up something to eat, moon over each other … and then maybe watch a movie?’ Just that one line alone ensures that I will be invested in this relationship and what happens to it. I love them both.
The movie has an overall impression of lightness, even with the scenes of deep grief and solitude. There are countless scenes of Leila and Reza (husband and wife) driving the highways – we see out the front windshield – sometimes it is blaring sunlight, we see the mountains to the north of Tehran, the bustling city streets around them … and sometimes it is dusk, the sky a deep dark blue, the streetlamps at the edge of the highway stretching off into the distance. Reza and Leila’s heads silhouetted against the landscape, as they chat about what happened during the day, the various “second wives” they have interviewed. It’s chillingly normal.
There is a great heaviness in their world, events have moved beyond their control, and both of them are caught up in it – to family obligations, to their own sense of truth, to their desire to make the other happy (which is one of the major fault-lines of the film) … but the look of the film, the feel of the montages, the way characters fade in and out as they walk down hallways, showing the disorientation at the heart of grief, that you literally do not know where you are at times, you lose substance, you become like air … is all very light. You yearn for someone (other than Reza’s monstrous mother, that is) to put a foot down, to say, “No. Here is where we stop. Here is the ground beneath our feet, and we will go no further.” But what happens when your desire to please overrides all other considerations? What happens when depression – deep and acute – fogs your vision? Where does happiness lie? In yourself? In your spouse? Can one spouse be happy when the other is in despair? How do we stay connected, in the midst of our shared loss?
Leila and Reza try to fight it out. But at times they are working at cross purposes. And in the world depicted in Leila, a young married couple is never alone. Their families are chattering in their ears at all times, whatever is going on in the relationship is everyone’s business, the phone rings off the hook throughout the film. You cannot say No to your family. You cannot screen your calls. There would be hell to pay. The atmosphere is suffocating. At times I wanted to say to Reza or Leila, as they sat in their house, mourning, fighting, silently enduring – and the phone kept ringing – I wanted to say, “Let the machine pick up! Don’t answer!” But no. They can’t.
In their world, their parents – and aunts and uncles – all have a right to intervene, to interject themselves, to ask nosy questions, to talk incessantly about sperms and eggs and Leila and Reza’s sex life- as though it is anybody’s business! Leila and Reza are not given a chance to interpret their own experience and figure out what they want to do, with the news that she is infertile. It is a raw wound. For both of them. Terrible news, painful, shatteringly so. But the way it is treated by their families (not all members, but certainly the most vocal) as a problem to be solved, with no sensitivity, everyone barges right into the center of the action, discussing Leila’s “barren womb” and Reza’s frustrated sperm, no holds barred. An infertile woman is public property. A family crisis.
It’s a painful film, but with many moments of great joy … and I was left, at the end, with hope. But then again, I’m certifiable.
Leila and Reza are happy. We see a series of moments in their lives, shot Cassavetes-style, with very little editorializing. We just see moments, out of context, but they add up to a whole, an impression more than a factual representation … a montage-effect of an entire relationship. We see Leila and Reza having a candlelight dinner at home, and cracking each other up over nothing. She bursts out laughing, he wants to know what is funny, she can barely speak, which starts him laughing, which makes her lose it all over again. They enjoy each other.
We move on. Moments are not dwelt upon or analyzed. Reza shows up at the door of their lovely house with random ridiculous gifts, the sole reason behind them to make her howl with laughter. Which she does.
In these simple scenes, we see that both members of this couple are devoted to pleasing the other. Even if it means being silly. One of their favorite things to do is to make shish kebab, grilling it outside in their backyard. They chop up the vegetables and meat together, Reza mans the grill, Leila mixes the yogurt sauce, and it’s nighttime, cool, they are alone, in their love and their simple pleasures of marriage.
Again, we don’t get many scenes of this – just 3 or 4 at the beginning – and that is all we need. The relationship is set up. The love between them is established (without anyone ever saying, “I love you.”) Most of what they do together is laugh. They like to go out to eat. They like Japanese food. You know. Regular newlywed stuff.
You do get the sense of their families hovering on the outskirts. It’s a loud noisy gossipy world, of busybodies and nosy questions. Leila and Reza, before they get the bad news, treat it all with humor and tolerance. Within a week of their getting married, everyone asks when they will get pregnant. The film opens with Leila’s birthday – and Leila and Reza going to parties – first at his family’s house, and then at her family’s house. We can see the differences between the two families: Reza’s family is a bit austere, they live in a towering marble mansion, with elegant green walls, and artwork everywhere, a bit chilly. Reza’s mother and his aunt run everything – they remind me a bit of Regan and Goneril from King Lear. Reza has three sisters, formidable women in their own right, married themselves – and they end up becoming important allies later on. Reza’s poor father is henpecked and overrun, he says things like, “I have no idea what is going on in this house” as the women race around, chattering and making plans … as he retreats to his study.
But he is nobody’s fool, as we discover later. It is just that he has learned the power of silence and withdrawal. But when he does speak? Wow. You better listen. Not only does he hold a part of himself separate from his overbearing wife, but he maintains a slow still pool of kindness and compassion, within him. It is a cruel world, and Leila and Reza will be overrun by it … but Reza’s father sits back, and looks at Leila, with kindness. He can see what she is going through. He can see her pain, and he feels for her. And you realize that that is no small thing. That compassion is actually everything.
But what is, essentially, so chilling about Reza’s family – and I think the house Mehrjui chose to place them in is indicative of a larger point he was making – is that they are the ultimate in privileged. They have great wealth. They have cell phones and also social power (any young girl would be thrilled to be a “second wife” marrying into such a family). And yet, when push comes to shove, this ancient and cruel tradition of polygamy emanates from his family. Not Leila’s, who are more traditional, certainly not as wealthy. Leila’s family, when they find out about the second wife, are horrified, and furious. We might think (in our mistaken preconceived notions) that it would be opposite – that Leila’s family, their lower class status – would be the ones clinging to “the old ways”. That modernism and technology, in and of themselves, bring enlightenment, and represent a break with the past. But no, that would be too easy – and Mehrjui is not interested in the easy way out. We make assumptions. And Mehrjui shows us where we are wrong (but again, without a heavy hand. All of this is implied – you just have to look at Reza’s parents house in comparison to Leila’s parents … the difference is right there).
At Leila’s birthday party, Reza’s mother – who reminds me of a fat black widow “s” – with her big bug-eyed glasses and cooing dominating smile – comes up to the camera, which we are to understand is Leila’s point of view – and whispers that Reza needs to have a son, and soon.
Or Reza’s older sister walks up to the camera and whispers that Leila needs to make sure Reza doesn’t get too fat, that she needs to feed him such and such …
Anything that has to do with Reza is up for conversation. He is the King, the golden child, the beloved son who has been babied and pampered by a houseful of domineering women. The fact that Reza has any balls at all (and he does, he really does) is amazing. His main goal is to make his wife happy, and to be a good husband. But this one goal ends up butting against his mother’s goals for him. And Reza is caught.
At first, I didn’t like the convention of actors talking right to the camera, it seemed too obvious … but by the end of the film, as it used again and again, it took on a different aspect. It is always the women who speak directly to Leila … and their comments and “gentle suggestions” (which are actually commands) begin to add up to an overriding sense that Leila is not alone in her own head. She cannot make up her own mind … the voices of the others take over. Sometimes Mehrjui puts an echo on those voices, to show that there is a reverb. And eventually, all these black-veiled women end up feeling like a Greek chorus, prophesiers of doom or revelation. And Leila can’t ignore their whisperings. She lies in bed, by herself, and hears them still.
You can tell, in these early scenes, despite the fact that Leila and Reza obviously have an open and loving relationship, that man is King. Reza is the beloved only son. Leila is just a conduit for his seed. It is her job to produce. Get crackin’, dear.
We move on from the party at Reza’s parents house to the party at Leila’s parents house. This house is a more traditional Middle Eastern house – one-story – with a tall gate blocking the garden and house from public view. The tables are low to the ground, and everyone sits on the floor. The kitchen bustles with activity, and the men in the family sit around eating, laughing, making dirty jokes, and teasing the women. One of the men plays a guitar (or a Persian version of such) … accompanying the raucous family gathering with music. The walls are lined with books (how I yearned to browse those shelves!). Leila has a younger sister, who is mischievous and still single, she is Leila’s best friend and confidante. There is also an uncle (played by Mohamad Reza Sharifinia) who is one of my favorite characters in the film – Uncle Hossein. He wears a long robe, he has a flowing beard, he is single, and makes huge pronouncements about what his wife should be, and everyone laughs in response. “She should be beautiful and educated and rich … but she also shouldn’t talk too much!” Everyone howls, and says, “Who would have you, Hossein??” There’s a nice easy feeling here, with these people. They cook together, eat together, sing together, and Reza is accepted as a beloved member of the family.
That man right there is Uncle Hossein. He is a breath of fresh air.
The honeymoon is soon over. Leila and Reza have not gotten pregnant, and so they go to see a doctor. The hospital is cold, clinical, and empty. We see Leila and Reza walking down a hall together, and they look so small, dwarfed not only by the building, but by their new circumstance. The doctor is female, glamorous, unsmiling, with a gauzy white chador. She is from another world, the world of medicine, and certainty, where words like “ovum” and “progesterone” and “ovaries” are thrown around, as though they are not knives, cutting deeply into someone’s personal experience. It’s not her fault. She’s a doctor. But Leila and Reza sit and listen to her, realizing what is ahead of them – fertility treatments, maybe artificial insemination, a long road … and the doctor’s voice goes into an echo, leaving the two of them disoriented, and alone.
Tests are done. Leila and Reza are not even able to wait in peace, their phone rings off the hook – Reza’s mother and his witch-like aunt – wanting to know what the prognosis is. They continuously sound the same refrain, to Leila: “It can’t be Reza’s problem. We’ve never had such a problem in our family. Reza is fine, it must be you who is the problem.” Leila shows amazing forbearance, listening to all of this. Reza is starting to break free from his family, in the face of all of this, you can feel it. He ceases caring (at least openly) about having a child. What he wants is to be with Leila, and to have a happy marriage. He insists he doesn’t care about having kids, and you know what? I believe him. Not that he wouldn’t welcome children, but he’s certainly not about to divorce Leila if the problem is hers. That would be unthinkable. Through the course of the film, one of the things that becomes apparent is that, for Reza, there is only one woman in the world. And that is Leila. If she departs, then so does his chance for happiness. I am sad for Leila, and what she has to go through. But in many ways, I am sadder for Reza. He is the one who is truly caught, and he is the one who is going to lose. Ali Mossafa, the actor playing Reza, is wonderful. Infertility happens to both parties in a marriage. And he is willing to give up the dream of children to have a happy wife again. He says to her once, the saddest line in the film, “I want the old you back.”
They learn that it is Leila who is infertile. So commences a year of exhausting upsetting tests and medication and ovulation and herbal remedies … Leila and Reza visit an orphanage, just to see what the process would be for adoption. They’re not sure if it’s what they want to do, but they are weighing all the options. Children play outside like maniacs and Leila wanders among them, looking at them, laughing, sometimes not laughing, taking them all in, trying to see how it would feel to her to take one of them, not her own, home. As she wanders through the children, Reza stands off to the side, watching her. I’m not sure what I would say that I see on his face. It’s not just one thing.
Love for her. Sadness for her. Sadness for himself. Trying to gain strength for whatever they have to face. Trying to reconcile his dreams for himself with the reality in front of him. It’s a lovely moment.
And the pressure is growing, from Reza’s side of the family. At a family picnic, Reza’s mother takes Leila aside and says that it is time to start thinking about Reza taking a second wife. Leila wouldn’t be so selfish as to deny her her posterity, would she? The second wife would merely be a baby-maker, she wouldn’t usurp Leila’s position … Leila must think about it, and must also convince Reza that this is the right step. As a person living in America, that scene is the most difficult to handle. It’s foreign, it seems cruel and savage, it seems that Leila is not being considered, that her pain is not being taken seriously. Her pain is selfish. Stop whining about being infertile – what is important is that Reza procreates. Leila tries to say to her mother-in-law, “Reza doesn’t really care for children …” and Reza’s mother pooh-poohs this. Of course he does. He is just saying that so Leila won’t feel bad.
She’s a horrible woman. Insinuating, undercutting, dominating … Leila “owns” what Reza’s mother says to her. She begins to look at Reza in a new way, and wonders if it is true … is he just placating her? Will he regret staying with her? Will he regret having no children? Will he grow to hate her? Reza’s mother assures her that this is her future. Leila begins to lose her grip on herself, and her own sense of her relationship. Even though Reza says to her, in private, “Don’t listen to my mother. She’s bossy and full of shit. I don’t care about kids. I love you. I want you. I don’t want a second wife.”
There are heart-aching scenes of Leila praying by herself. Sometimes there is a voiceover, her quiet voice saying, “God, why are you punishing me? Have I sinned?” Other times, there is just silence, with the echoing of the muezzins in the distance, calling people to prayer. Leila, though, prays alone. It is her own grief. She feels cursed by God.
And on a superficial note, Leila Hatami is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and the camera adores her face, caressing its curves, mulling upon her chin dimple, she’s got a face made for the movies – gorgeous, evocative, yet asymmetrical, and totally itself. When she cracks, and starts to weep, it is even more terrible, because her beauty is so singular and serene, so attention-getting in and of itself.
And so begins the battle, the main battle of the film, which has multiple tentacles. There is the growing pressure from Reza’s mother and aunt, to start interviewing second wives. There is the increasing strain between Leila and Reza. Reza makes himself clear – he does not want a second wife. He would rather be alone with Leila, childless. A baby (ie: sex) without love is meaningless to him. Leila begins to sway to the other side, she begins to put the pressure on Reza to start thinking about a second wife. It is mainly so that she can X herself out of the picture, and martyr herself. Her pain is so huge that she feels it cannot be born any other way. Again, this may be incomprehensible to us, in this society – but Mehrjui makes the point here that it should be incomprehensible to anyone with a caring heart. In his way, his film is a revolutionary document. A clarion call for equal rights and for compassion. Leila’s response to the savagery is understandable in that context. Who could bear it? She cannot bear seeing Reza unhappy and she wonders if Reza might be happier with a child. Reza begins to cave. He is overrun by women (as usual). He is furious about this. There’s a great scene where Leila and Reza fight and Reza explodes, “Why hasn’t anyone asked me MY opinion about this? Why doesn’t anyone care what I am going through?” It’s a valid question.
There’s a tragic scene where Leila and Reza sit at home, drinking tea. Suddenly Reza picks up his empty cup and looks down at the tea leaves and begins to read his fortune out loud. “There is a man who is so in love with a woman that he will do anything to make her happy. The man wants to run away with her, where they can be alone in their love.” Leila picks up her cup, and reads her fortune. “There is a woman who only wants her love to be happy. She will do anything for him.”
But by this point, Leila and Reza have different definitions of what will make the other happy. Leila, even in her misery, thinks that what Reza’s mother says is true. And that what will make Reza happy will be to have a second wife, who will bear him a child. Reza thinks that what will make Leila happy is to turn her back on all of the whisperings from his family, and re-enter their lives together, as a couple, childless or no.
Reza’s sisters, who, up until this point, have been a mystery, descend upon Leila one afternoon. There are three of them. They clomp up the walk, chadors billowing, and they look vaguely terrifying. I think it was Guy de Maupassant who described fully veiled Arab women as looking like “death out for a walk”. To me, that’s what Reza’s sisters (even though they are not Arab) look like as they tramp loudly and seriously towards Leila’s door.
But then … amazingly … they sit Leila down, talk right to her (to the camera) and tell her to get a backbone. She needs to say to their mother, “Take a hike, lady.” They warn her that if she accepts the proposition of taking another woman into her home, she will lose Reza forever. They bring forth arguments – valid ones. A man can’t help but fall in love with a woman he makes love to. Especially if she bears him a child. Could you let Reza fall in love with someone else? Reza is a man – but he is dominated by his mother – don’t let her run all over you! Stand up for yourself, say NO – tell her in no uncertain terms that the second wife thing is OFF. Reza is depending on YOU to stand up for yourself and for your marriage! He is only succumbing because he thinks YOU want it!!
So suddenly, “death out for a walk” becomes a welcome collective voice of humanity and sanity. I love those women. They had kept quiet, out of deference to their mother and Reza for a while – but finally decided: You know what? This is nuts. Let’s go talk to Leila.
But they do not convince her. Leila says she has “turned to stone”. She becomes annoyingly passive, and hands the reins over to Reza’s mother. Reza says things to Leila like, “I wish you would scream at me and tell me that you would never accept a second wife … I wish you would stamp your feet and say No!” But she doesn’t. In a sense, she leaves him alone in it. A very selfish act. But understandable, nonetheless. Her guilt is huge. She looks at his sad worried face and knows that it is because of her.
So Reza’s mother and aunt begin to propose possible women as second wives. Leila is bound to secrecy and told not to tell her family. Which is so unethical and sneaky, and of course only what we should expect from Reza’s bitch of a mother (who, in the end, gets what’s coming to her – in one of the funniest shots in the whole film. I laughed out loud and clapped when I saw it, thinking, “Ha! Serves you right, lady!!”)
Reza and Leila drive around Tehran, to go on these ghoulish “interviews”. Leila is dropped off in a public place, and she wanders the streets, or in the park … waiting for Reza to come back from his interview and pick her up. It’s all so absurd. Leila can hardly believe what is happening to her. Reza is not enthusiastic about any of it. He makes it clear that any possible second wife must be “cleared” by Leila first. Otherwise, no go. But you can sense Reza’s dread. He drives off, leaving Leila alone.
And the funniest and most wonderful things start to happen on their long drives home, as Leila asks Reza about each woman he had to meet. These are my favorite scenes in the film, these drives. Leila asks for a report – “Okay, so tell me everything. What was she like?” And Reza starts to regale her with stories – about one woman’s facial tick, and one woman’s cheeky rude manner, how one of them was pissed that he planned on staying in Iran, how one never spoke but her father grilled Reza on his financial situation … how one of the women blurted out, “So your wife can’t have kids, right? You should divorce her, and marry me …” … All of these crazy stories, and they are not told in a gloomy way, but as ridiculous comedic set-pieces. Leila listens, and laughs hysterically – saying stuff like, “Did she really say it like that?” Or “Come on, you’re exaggerating …” In a creepy way, not totally explainable, Leila and Reza become closer during those drives, making fun of these poor prospective second wives. I love that! It’s not “rational”, and it’s a bit beyond the pale … but don’t we, as humans, sometimes behave in the weirdest of ways, especially under duress? Reza does an imitation of the bitchy mother of one of the girls, and Leila cracks up. It’s like they’re in it together. They’re in it together. I cling to that, watching the film … still feeling that somewhere, beneath all of it, they are holding hands, maintaining that original bond. A lovely touch, those scenes.
I love the one dinner scene, at home, when Leila starts to tell Reza about one of the prospective women that Reza’s mother wanted him to meet. She says, “Her father is a colonel in the army.” Reza glances up, deadpan, and says, “A colonel in the army?” Like: my second wife will be a colonel in the army? His joke takes Leila by surprise, and she starts cracking up – and then begins a long goofy scene of the two of them making this prospective wife more and more grotesque: “Maybe she will be bald.” “I wonder if she will have an artificial eye.” “I think she might have two artificial limbs.” By the end, they are both crying with laughter.
You rarely need to have actors say the words “I love you” in order to convince us in the audience that they are in love. In fact, it is better to NOT have them say “I love you”. The “Maybe she’ll be a gimp” and the “I bet she will have a big gold buck tooth” scene says, clearer than any other kind of language: “I love you, dear.” “And yes, I love you.”
And what wonderful film-making that is.
I will not tell you how the film ends. All I can say is that it is a searing unforgiving examination of a situation that affects the lives of millions of people – and also a window into a world that remains somewhat mysterious to those of us on the outside. But Leila is not opaque. It is not the closed walls of the Middle Eastern houses, with private life safely ensconced beyond view. Mehrjui takes us back there, into that world, into the lives of these people, struggling to do the best they can, to be their best selves, and to cope with the cards that God has dealt them.