The modest cracks in the Iranian theocracy’s censorship program that earlier films from that country have exhibited widen further in Kamal Tabrizi’s “Marmoulak,” or “Lizard,” a comedy that gently chides the mullah-based government for its overly legalistic, rigid formulation of Islam while ultimately affirming the faith’s power for good. It’s a much less angry counterpart to the Mexican film “Herod’s Law,” which was a dark satire on the corruption of the ruling party in that country, and the two pictures shared a common fate–an attempt by the established order to prevent their exhibition. Luckily, both efforts ultimately failed, and just as Luis Estrada’s picture eventually made its way to the United States, so now Tabrizi’s is appearing sporadically in the country despite efforts to prevent foreign showings. The two films are also similar in being intriguing efforts, with this one the more consistently successful.
The title figure is a middle-aged man named Reza “Marmoulak” (or “Lizard”) (Parviz Parastui), a stout, squat, bearded fellow with a cagey smile who’s a master thief, simply by reason of the fact that he has an abnormal aptitude for scaling walls, which explains his nickname. His ability doesn’t prevent him from being caught and sentenced to a stay in a prison presided over by a smug, demanding warden who espouses a doctrine of rehabilitation based on religious principles. The calculated unfairness of his treatment almost leads Reza to kill himself, but a stint in the infirmary brings him into contact with a placid, beatific mullah who allows him to steal his robes and escape in disguise. Making his way to a region on the Turkish border where he’s arranged to secure a fake passport and leave the country, Reza is accepted as a mullah by train passengers and staff despite his obvious secular interests, and when he arrives at his destination he’s assumed by the locals to be the cleric expected to take over their local mosque. It’s not long before his down-to-earth, commonsensical approach reinvigorates the community. He’s also taken to be exceptionally pious after he’s spotted sneaking out without his priestly garb at night and visiting various houses in the poor district of town. (Actually, he’s just trying to find his passport, but the locals believe that he’s distributing alms incognito, and they soon begin to imitate his charitable activities.) And sprinkled throughout the picture are some amusing running gags, one involving his increasing discomfiture at the nonsensically legalistic queries posed by a young student (e.g., how can a Muslim say the required nighttime prayers during the twenty-four hour days at the North Pole?) and another having to do with a local bully whom he reforms into a pillar of the community.
In a fairly mundane sense, “Marmoulak” can be described as a sort of Islamic counterpart to Neil Jordan’s remake of “We’re No Angels” (1989), in which two escaped convicts pretended to be priests. But because of its context this film makes a more serious underlying point. By suggesting that religion is far more true to its ideals and socially effective when it’s practiced in a humane and matter-of-fact way, it implicitly criticizes the intolerant, controlling Islamic regime in today’s Iran. But screenwriter Peiyman Ghassemkhani and Tabrizi make their point deftly, without getting too heavy-handed about it, and they add an ending that testifies to the rehabilitating effect of Islam even on a confirmed secularist like Reza. Parastui aids their effort with an unfussy everyman performance, and he gets nice support from the rest of the cast. The picture isn’t terribly slick on the technical side, but it’s adequate.
“Marmoulak” won’t be an easy film to find in theatres, since it’s not being distributed in the conventional sense (it appears that private groups must in effect sponsor showings), but keep an eye out for it. It’s not only an enjoyable little picture that celebrates a moderate ideal of Islam we don’t often hear about in this era of fundamentalism, but it may also prove an early sign of a historically significant political thaw in post-revolutionary Iran.