R.I.P. Dariush Mehrjui

In the sweepstakes for the title the Most Interesting and Accomplished Filmmaker the United States Has Never Heard Of, Dariush Mehrjui has certain obvious advantages. While still in his twenties, the Iranian director made ‘The Cow’ (1969), a film so powerful that it was not only credited with launching Iran’s modern cinema but also, a decade later, made a fan of the Ayatollah Khomeini and thus helped assure that country’s cinema would have a post-revolutionary phase. Cosmopolitan and ever-controversial, Mehrjui has had films banned by the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic, and almost surely is the only filmmaker reared a devout Muslim who counts the novelists J.D. Salinger and Saul Bellow as major influences on his work. He’s even made a film of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, called ‘Pari,’ set in contemporary Iran.
— Godfrey Cheshire, in his beautiful pained tribute to Iranian filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui

In a week of horrifying news, here’s one more. Legendary pioneering director Dariush Mehrjui and his wife, Vahideh Mohammadifar, were stabbed to death in their own home outside of Tehran on Oct. 14. Their daughter Mona found the bodies. So far, there are no suspects. Although, how hard is anyone looking? You know there’s a social media trail. Recently, Vahideh posted on her social media that the couple had been receiving death threats. My thoughts go out to all of their colleagues, family, friends, to Mona. This is tragic.

Godfrey Cheshire’s area of expertise in Iranian cinema, so I highly recommend his tribute on Ebert, but I have some things to add. This is just shocking news. I’m so furious.

Dariush Merhjui was born in 1939. His 1969 film The Cow put Iranian cinema on the world map (and it’s never had a fallow period ever since, even with a regime in power who does what it can to crush/silence its own artists). As Godfrey mentioned, the Ayotollah Khomeinei liked The Cow and so Mehrjui survived the Revolution, and was “allowed” to keep making films within the nation of Iran (many of his colleagues fled). The Cow was only his second film, I believe, and it struck a chord. For the first time, a film from Iran hit the international film festival circuit, announcing in no uncertain terms that Iran had arrived.

Here is Mehrjui speaking about The Cow, and what it represented in terms of a change in Iranian cinema, and how it opened up new possibilities:

When people talk about various “new waves” in international cinema – there’s a Romanian New Wave going on right now, for example – Iran’s new wave started in 1969 with The Cow.

Mehrjui’s 1975 film The Cycle demonstrates many of the themes interesting Mehrjui. His films incorporate class of course – all Iranian cinema does – and his point of view was bourgeois, middle-class: this, too, was a revelation. His characters move between modernity and tradition, often caught between the two. The great Asghar Farhadi is one of his many heirs.

I came to Mehrjui through his 1996 film Leila, starring Leila Hatami and Ali Mossafa, about a middle class couple struggling with infertility. They are happily married (I love the scene where they watch Lawrence of Arabia, the film reflected in the glass coffee table). They begin fertility treatments but the husband’s mother – like a witch from a fairy tale in the full black chador – puts the pressure on her son to take a second wife. The second wife will bear the children. He won’t divorce Leila, but Leila is now “useless” since her womb doesn’t work. The film is brutal and painful, particularly because Mossara and Hatami, two superb actors, give such a sense of the couple’s happiness and contentment, with or without a child. There are so many unforgettable scenes and moments (the movie in the coffee table, the second wife’s beaded skirt click-clicking as she walks up the stairs, the mother-in-law talking right to the camera – an immovable force).

Mehrjui did many adaptations of Western literature, including his film Sara, a daring adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, starring award-winning actress/director Niki Karimi.

Another film to seek out is The Pear Tree, Golshifteh Farahani’s debut, who has gone on to huge international success (after being banned from appearing in films in Iran). She was a child in The Pear Tree, and a haunting beautiful figure in this Proustian tale, where a young man visits relatives in the country, drawn into the different country rhythms.

Mehrjui was known for bringing Iranian cinema into the modern age. He was often compared to important national figures like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, and Satyajit Ray, directors who brought their countries to the world, who allowed the world to glimpse reality (as seen through their eyes, of course) in ways that were often revelatory. You don’t get to “know” people from reading the headlines. Mehrjui incorporated realism, weaving it together with poetry of image and mood, and was also frank about the everyday lives of Iranian people. He was frank enough his work often ran into trouble with the censors. His example inspired generations of Iranian filmmakers.

This loss is shocking. The way it happened is even more shocking. I’m so furious it’s hard to even pay tribute but I had to mark the passing of one of cinema’s great filmmakers. He was born in 1939. He made it through the revolution, he survived multiple crackdowns, reprisals, repressions, only to be stabbed in his own home. The horror he and his wife must have gone through is unimaginable.

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