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An Ogre’s Hide: Samad and Foolad Zereh, the Ogre

samad-and-foolad-zereh-the-ogre

By Ramin S. Khanjani.

For many avid followers of Iranian cinema across the world, the experience of this national cinema justifiably doesn’t go much beyond recent works of festival fixtures such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and now Asghar Farhadi. Now imagine seating these fans in front of a screen to project for them the following scene and – in the vein of their venerated Kiarostami – get their expressions recorded. The result would be no less entertaining. Here is a summary of the scene in question: a garden party is in full swing, with an army of guests whom nobody would fathom running into in daily life; or at least this is the impression evoked by their appearance. Thronging the garden are beings who belong to polar ends of an imaginary spectrum. Angels and ogres, strolling and merry-making in each other’s company, echo an Escherian composition sprung to life. What’s afoot is of course a masquerade as unabashed in artificiality as the few commercial Iranian cinematic excursions in the terrain of fantasy. Beware, surfaces are not to be trusted, and the same applies to rationality; there’s one stranger among the group whose real uncanny identity is concealed. And then arrives an episode of jealousy that culminates in an act of violence and bloodshed. And to get the spectator befuddled to the max, another outsider is sighted all along; dressed in the stereotypical style of an Iranian villager of no-geographical specificity, this lad has adamantly refused to camouflage, or to socialise decently for that matter. To make the most of the party, this yokel applies himself to gorging on edibles, and his ungainly presence incurs funny troubles on other invitees.

The foregoing was a description of a key scene in Jalal Moghaddam’s way-out comedy from 1971, Samad and Foolad Zereh, the Ogre (Samad va fulad zereh div) an attempt to shunt a commercial comedy franchise into a more intellectual register. In the cinephile-oriented website Mubi which features tons of fan lists, the film has fittingly wound up in one dubbed “Worldweird cinema,” pieced together by people associated with the cult film purveyor company, Mondo Macabro. As you read through, I hope that you will concur with the fairness of this labelling. I’m curious how close their experience of the film was to my imagination of the potential spectators.

The intended mixed appeal of this franchise repackaging was a characteristic of Jalal Moghaddam’s back catalogue as a filmmaker. Treated by critics as a respected filmmaker of the late 1960s and 70s who was aiming to feed the audience of the commercial cinema with more serious stuff, Moghaddam was an admirer of Hollywood cinema; for Moghaddam Hollywood cinema probably stood as an ideal model in bringing together public appeal with higher standards in content and production value.[1] Nevertheless the translation of this ideal model met with an overall success only in one or two films in his slim filmography as a director. The chasm between local generic conventions and Moghaddam’s elitist tastes seems yawning too wide for his choices; or probably his chosen strategies were not exactly oriented to that mission. Anyway you look at it, the result was the same: gross figures were below satisfactory levels for producers. In this specific venture of our discussion, Moghaddam was in company of a likeminded artist, even if this partnership – as it has been known – was born form hesitancies over the marketability of the original script. Parviz Sayyad, the lead actor playing the eponymous Samad – the unruly village boy which was Sayyad’s own franchised brainchild – and also the co-script writer of the film, was similarly navigating the grey area between pure commercialism and intellectualism. In fact, by Sayyad’s own admission the string of his hugely popular comedies featuring Samad – all acted, and with the exception of Moghaddam’s film, directed by him – were primarily benefit-reaping vehicles for him to amass cash and launch alternative projects.[2]

Samad and Foolad ZerehDespite Moghaddam’s persevering reconciliatory aspirations and his background of collaboration with an established comic team earlier in his career – in that case the famous trio of Grasha-Sepehrnia-Motevasselani in Three Mad Men (1968) – the gestation of Samad and Foolad Zereh, the Ogre had nothing to do with Sayyad’s character. Indeed the film was conceived to follow the adventures of a young boy and Foolad Zereh, a legendary ogre who is unshackled and transposed to our own time. The substitution of the young boy with Samad – who despite his grown-up physical stature suggests a childish mentality – was a solution suggested by the cinematographer of the film when Moghaddam and his producer foresaw difficulties of working with a child actor (Talebinejad 1989). But additionally it was the type of trade-off that could guarantee the box office. The end result was far from a cohesive product, as far as both narrative and tone were concerned. The schism in tone that pulls the film asunder could be said to be a marker of the director’s dual ambitions. Such schism is also embodied by the two main, titular characters of the movie. Though the title of the film fittingly points to the diegetic relation of alliance between two main characters, it would be enough to replace the separating “and” with “vs.” to highlight their respective meta-diegetic functions.

With the incorporation of the Samad character into the plot, the film invests in the commonplace city/village contrast discourse to beef up its vitriolic vision of modernising Iranian society seen through the eyes of an incongruous archaic creature. While named after a famous fictional figure of popular stories, the ogre has nothing to do with its fabled namesake. In fact Moghaddam[3] draws upon the most famous Farsi epic of The Book of Kings (Shahnameh, 977-1010), to create a backstory for his mythical creature. Being confined for centuries to the sunless cells of a hidden prison – which is presumably still in the age of myths and governed by its own temporality – Foolad Zereh is unexpectedly set free and crops up before the harrowed eyes of impish Samad who has triggered his release by an innocent act of incensing the ogre’s hair, itself an ancient trace of the creature’s captivity in his childhood. The ogre enlightens his accidental saviour on his backstory and then offers him his servitude according to his species’ codes of honour. In its first section, the film to a great degree builds on the familiar rural set-up of Samad films and features most of its recognisable inhabitants. This familiar landscape presents a space for forging a companionship between the eponymous characters, the two outcasts. The gargantuan appetite of the ogre – who on his new master’s orders is barred from sinking his teeth in human flesh – and his ambushes at sheep herds, results in Samad – black sheep of the village – taking the fall. Also involved here is the abiding element of the series, i.e. an impossible amorous affair between Samad and Leila, village headman’s daughter who this time is kidnapped by the ogre and taken to his master. The transition to the next episode of the plot is accomplished with the ogre coming to his master’s rescue and saving him from the police station in the nick of time. The ogre then takes flight carrying the village boy on his back. In their flight, they are scudding across the sky searching for a spot to find some peace and, needless to say, ample food for the gluttonous horned creature. But they alight on no other expanse of land than the streets of the capital city, Tehran, whose populace is equally intolerant of their presence.

This is not the first excursion of Samad to the city in the entire series, neither did it end up being the last of them. In point of fact a tension between the rural/urban life austerely formatted as the honesty/wiles dichotomy was present in Sayyad’s envisaged fictional sphere from the beginning of the series. A number of entries see Samad emerging on the streets of the city under a variety of pretexts. Consistently the city was the house of the evil ones. Even Samad’s eternal love contender – surprisingly absent in Moghaddam’s film – is frequently ridiculed by his miserably half-arsed attempts to associate himself with the city and its lifestyle. Echoing the exponential trend of villagers’ migration to the cities in Iran, the film that wrote finis to the series – Samad Becomes Homeless (1978) – exhibits a total departure from the rural environment by following Samad, who is by then forced to eke out a living in the city, within a network of fraud and mendacity. In this respect, Moghaddam’s sojourn in the series with its higher aspirations hardly paces in a different trajectory, as it vigorously pins the label of decadence on urbanites.

Having said that, Moghaddam still infuses his film with a distinct flavour that sets it apart in tone from Sayyad’s typical fare. The result is however not very homogeneous and its furcated structure makes itself known with the last part of the film taking more distance from Samad’s antics and pouring the spotlight further over the guest creature. This is the result of Moghaddam’s decision to stick to Sayyad’s stock character not just in name, but in every other attribute. Two years later Sayyad appeared in the role of another rural character in the second and ultimate feature film by the staple figure of Iranian cinema and literature, Ebrahim Golestan. Nevertheless Golestan, with his rigorously highbrow preferences, astutely didn’t allow any of the screeching hallmarks of this stock character to filter through to his film, thereby claiming the full authorial possession of the final film (this can also be attributed to the fact that film was funded by Golestan himself).

Notwithstanding the strong presence of elements of the franchise in the early village episode of Moghaddam’s film, these scenes still bear enough distinction to set the tone for the deviations which follow. One contributing element to this distinction is the soundtrack, composed by a different artist rather than the regular contributor of the series. From the get-go, Morteza Hannaeh’s music, that plays over Samad and Ogre’s hide and seek game, is at once jaunty and ominous. Abetted by disruptive inserted close-ups of a drum, the soundtrack evokes the presence of the uncanny and tempers the spectator’s expectation for an atypical entry and keeps ahead with that. Add to this the distorted images with which film is dotted from the start. Shot with short lenses – almost close to fisheyes – and exaggerated angles withal, these unorthodox visuals do not necessarily stand for the ogre’s point of view; on the contrary they often feature his presence. At any rate, these images add to the distinction of the film and even in one instance become the subject of a self-reflexive joke that points to the director’s unusual and more refined taste of humour.

09The bizarreness of Samad and the ogre results in them being apprehended and sent to the asylum. Contrary to the premodern mentality of villagers, who react to the uncanny with horror, the rational denizens of the city are shown to be unperturbed with the cock and bull stories of the supernatural being. For them weirdness is a mark of resistance to the hegemony of rationality. It is indicative of a malady of the mind that can be cured. Remarkably, in Foolad-zereh’s case this supposed malady is draped in references to a book which is considered a cultural heritage. The entire situation sets the stage for Moghaddam to set part of the action in an asylum, the set-up that hosted a big chunk of the screen time in The Three Mad Men. A mental institution seemed to better lend itself to Moghaddam and his goofy sense of humour, which was already manifest in his earlier semi-comedy. In fact unlike the equivocal nature of the Sepehrnia-Garsha-Motevasselani trio, who stand somewhere between comic and action characters, Samad and the physicality of his comedy permit the director to get a better mileage out of this location.

Unlike The Three Mad Men, there is no rapacious conspiracy motivating the consignment of the characters to the bedlam against their will. Here, it is a matter of the incongruity of the mythic/premodern mentality with an era of rationality/modernity and the latter has to triumph. This brings into the story the characters who are tasked with the taming of the uncouth mythic force and enforcing rationality, i.e. the psychiatrists. However the cynical view of the director – as of many other colleagues of the same generation – presents them through the prism of parody. Moghaddam, who once impersonated a phony intellectual in Golestan’s Brick and Mirror – and for which, as he confessed in an interview, this label was attached to him – fittingly appears in the role of one of the two shrinks who have to prove the supremacy of their scientific knowledge by re-educating the ogre and bringing him back to his senses.[4]

The handover of the pivotal position in the narrative from Samad to Foolad Zereh occurs during these edification scenes. In fact psychiatrists gradually lose their interest in the simpleton Samad and their hope to reform him. After finding him a roadblock on the way of their therapeutic efforts, they decide to get rid of Samad’s irksome presence.

The reformative prescription for the ogre not only involves administration of heavy tranquilisers – something akin to downers, seeds of social ills – but also a close relation between the subject of treatment and head-nurse who’s missioned with the reformative tutelage, a relation that shades into intimacy. The tumescent horns of the ogre, which are examined somewhat salaciously by the nurse during the preliminary examination, prefigure the formation of this connection which is about to be consummated in a near-miss rape attempt. The concept of sexuality as a lure with a synchronising function, seen through the director’s black humour with a degree of disdain, is picked up later again by the narrative to shape the relations in the final part of the film. In fact, when it comes to sexuality, most of the directors affiliated with the Iranian New Wave take an oppositional stance and frame it as a measure of decadence, featuring a conventional morality shared with the commercial cinema.

As spectators would expect from Samad and his obdurate character, he eventually weasels his way back into the asylum to extricate his buddy before being totally brainwashed by these petty Caligaris. However the training has already exacted its price and tied the creature to earthly bonds. As the ogre has been overcome with the sorrow of misunderstanding and his sense of his eccentric self has been ruined by the described reprogramming, the recurrence of deformed imagery dwindles and remains limited to outbursts of his ancient memories. Seeing it in another way, this rigorous training in the asylum peels layers of fantasy off the character and brings to light his essence. In consequence he turns up to be a close relative of the profusely employed tragic hero of Iranian films in the 1970s. The third and final section of the film accomplishes this disclosure.

fooladAfter Samad takes away the reluctant Foolad Zereh in his company from the asylum, they end up spending their night in a park. In this setting, Foolad Zereh’s now different and “normalised” mode of speech further refers us to the vagrant characters of Iranian cinema of the period. In the vein of those characters, Foolad Zereh’s stroll on the streets – in the absence of slumbering Samad – inevitably leads to him striking a relationship with a girl, this time one belonging to a wealthy layer of the society. The closest example coming to one’s mind in the context of the cinema of the period is the central character of Masoud Kimiai’s Reza, the Motorcyclist (1970), a story of a film-reel delivery man, Reza, who becomes part of a heist and then hides in a mental asylum, only to take advantage of a case of mistaken identity to meet the rich girlfriend of his double.

Interestingly, Kimiai’s film – which came in the wake of his hit, Gheysar (1969) – likewise features a parodic impulse, here embodied by the main character’s doppelganger, a softie quasi-intellectual. Yet in the case of Kimiai’s film, parody is applied in a more restrained fashion that keeps the film away from the domain of outright comedy. Of course asylum is a shared locale of both films and one that keeps within it characters who do not belong there. As with Kimiai’s film, the bottom-line appeal of the lone outsider for the girl is his embodiment of traditional manhood. In Moghaddam’s film this manhood first and foremost is translated into virility, which the beastly nature of the ogre amplifies. But in both cases the girl later finds this attractive, yet oppressive, manhood deleterious to her reputation. In case of the well-heeled modern girl in Moghaddam’s film it also proves to become a harness on her cherishment of social freedoms as far as socialising with the opposite sex is concerned. In parallel to Kimiai’s character, Moghaddam also takes his otherworldly figure with his beloved to a cabaret, while Samad – who’s now working more in a comic relief capacity – and a bevy of hip friends of the girl are in their company. In both cases the cabaret scene culminates with a physical fight because the hero, not concerned the least about appearance, enters into a scuffle motivated by the attraction of other men to his companion. Also in both instances the battling character is being reproved by his feminine company for not remaining calm as expected from a decent modern day gentleman. For Reza in Kimiai’s film this spells out the end of the affair, but Moghaddam saves the tumult of their relation breakdown for the earlier-mentioned party scene, to deliver it in a carnivalesque mode befitting the outlandish central duo. Given the anachronism informing Foolad Zereh’s character, his confounded materialisation in the loud and vibrant space belonging to youth culture might be redolent of the closing scene of Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965). The difference lies in Moghaddam’s derisive rendition of the young generation of the period as superficial folks that begs the audience to relate to the antiquated character.

In truth, the flamboyant garden party sequence, that features an audio-visual mumbo jumbo, has more to bewilder us than the mere presence of a mythical creature. The unsettling dialectic is not limited to the angel and ogre figures, but similarly applies to human guests who mimic look the of an ogre and the real ogre who’s been forced to underplay his mythical character. The mayhem of the images, exacerbated by Samad’s gags, finds resonance in the wild back-and-forth swing of the music from trendy rock-and-roll to Iranian traditional music, both presumably performed side by side at the party. The chaotic vibes of the scene also intensify with the juxtaposition of Foolad’s memory of the past and the brooding tension in the scene’s present. A parallel is visually established by images of a dying human soldier and his spitting image, Foolad’s vindictive rival who shows up at the party uninvited, as if the former has been reincarnated with an axe to grind. Hosting a slew of such bizarrely-garbed guests, the dark garden is endowed with the implication of a primeval space in which the imaginary and the real morph into each other, much as past and present do.

Throughout the film, snippets of Foolad Zereh’s memories gush forth every now and then to visually support his stories. Though they are pictorially distinct, Moghaddam and his editor show a tendency to use them in a way that blurs temporality and prepare the spectator for the similar effect in the climactic scene of the party. The best example is when Foolad Zereh relates the story of his mother to the psychiatrist, while an insane woman is incessantly gamboling around and making fun of him. The scene is cross-cut with visualisations of the ogre’s mother desperately attempting to ward off human marauders. The dynamism of the two women figures in motion bridges and blurs the time, while hearing the mad woman’s rants along with the ogre’s account over the image from the past, both intensifies this impression and adds a comic effect to the ancient scenery. To some extent, this formulation counters the tragic mood surrounding the ogres’ destiny.

Samad-and-Foolad-Zereh,-the-ogreThe peculiar status of the film in the entire series flows from this co-mingled presence of comedy and tragedy. In a way the tragic element enters the narrative by proxy of the imaginative character who displays associations with both the lone guy stereotype and an imaginary realm. The incarceration of this legendary creature and his brethren, decreed by a mythical king, could carry a political implication, even if diluted and deeply buried. Moghaddam’s only reference to the political zeitgeist in the film might point to the necessity of avoiding transparency: a passing mention of politics in a conversation gives panic to the shrink played by the director and brings him to abruptly leave the conversation. Treated as a joke, this is still an oblique view of the stifling status quo of the period, with the royal government and its security service keeping their grip tight, and any expression of dissent could come at a high cost.

Touted as a Samad film and as such fulfilling the expectations of the audience, the grotesque aspect of Samad and Foolad Zereh, the Ogre is tinged and controlled by its comedy. There are however moments where the bleakness takes over. One such instance is the briefly pictured story of Foolad Zereh’s brother. In this occasion the macabre spills into the plot, while influences from international horror film tropes can also be felt. As the film shows, the bathhouse owner, who breaks the spell and sets the brother free, is seen with suspicion by the local people as a result of his acquaintance with the supernatural. The flashback ends with showing an angry, torch carrying mob at night, rushing toward the bath to give the uncanny phenomenon its due, while Foolad Zereh reveals that the bathhouse owner was burnt to death. Such a ghastly account serves well as a pretext to shift the gears from a light-hearted comedy typical of Samad’s fare into something darker and more ominous. The overall feeling is far from traditional macabre, but it is legitimately weird.

This air of gloom infiltrates almost every ancient scenery invoked by the ogre’s reminiscences. Mythic landscapes of this stripe had already found their way into the commercial stream of Iranian cinema – famously in the products of Parsfilm, but the technical and financial limitations prevented a decent presentation and often the anachronistic goofs brought about unintentional comic effect. In Moghaddam’s film, similar settings and make-ups evoke a sense of loss of agency in the narrative. Is it the result of a narrative of defeat and slavery that detracts from the potential comedy, or could it be the reversal of the roles of human beings, from heroes to captors? Or maybe it is caused by the placement of the archaic creatures against the old and decrepit remains of historical sites, almost heaps of rubble, in the manner of Fereydoon Rahnama’s Siavash in Persepolis (1967),[5] with a similar dual temporality intended. Here even a similarity with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s myth-based works can be suggested. Significantly Moghaddam later emphasised his fascination with neorealism, in which style the Italian master had his beginnings.

Such temporal confusion reaches its height in the closing scene, as Samad and the injured giant are shown against the backdrop of the modern cityscape. As the injury of the ogre brings them to stop, the camera zooms to the buddies for their lines. Tighter shots follow, but when the camera zooms back, the background bears no indication of the present time. Within the space of their conversation they seem to have been transferred to a scene from the past. In fact Samad and the ogre notice on the horizon the same riders from the past who were ordered to put chains on the ogres. Slapped by an angel and shot by another ogre – though both bogus ones – the ogre is already on the path for receiving the ancient pursuers. The target of the riders’ stampede this time is not the ogre per se, but the glass jar the intactness of which guarantees the ogre’s survival. The ogre seems to receive this mortal menace with resignation. “The glass of life,” a prevalent gimmick of Iranian folk tales, is only brought up towards the end of the film to justify this ending. In the context of Iranian cinema, this object is also a throwback to an earlier film featuring Parviz Sayyad. In Ali Hatami’s lore-inspired Hassan, the Bald (1970), the hero – played by Sayyad – has to snatch and break this precious glass to save his beloved from her captivity in the ogre’s enchanted garden. But in his confrontation with the ogre, it is the monster himself that hands him the key to his death with similar resignation. It seems that Iranian filmmakers’ evocation of these fantastic characters squeezes out of them the joy of life; instead they’re infused with a morbid sense of the end of their era.

05As the single-standing buddy film-structured entry in the Samad series, Samad and Foolad Zereh, the Ogre ushers in the component of male fraternity much cherished by Iranian filmmakers of the period, specially in a trending group of films mostly associated with the Iranian New Wave cinema and later christened as “street films” by a number of critics.[6] This is indeed the area the film is more indebted to rather than the realm of fantasy. Thus the film is infused with the same rancour – albeit in a different concentration – as Moghaddam’s most hailed picture, Escape from the Trap (1971); whether wearing fedora hat or a pair of horns, the outcast is doomed. Looking at it that way, the ogre is no different from other invitees to the outlandish party; his ghoulish external features are similarly a convenient cover to disguise his true identity or origins, but at the same time they also leave him no excuse for an impossible integration at the end of the story. The directorial career of Moghaddam ended with two films in the mid-80s – the only films he made after the 1979 revolution – both of them ran into problems with the censorship board, flopped at the box office and were disregarded by critics. Thereafter his cinema career remained limited to playing usually not major – but somehow memorable – roles for his colleagues.[7] A car accident spelled the end of a director whose days of glory were long behind him. With his notably tall stature, could Moghaddam possibly recognise any trace of his envisioned ogre in his own destiny when looking back?

Ramin S. Khanjani obtained his Master’s degree in Film Studies from Carleton University, Ottawa. His writings and reports have previously appeared in the Iranian publications, Film Monthly and Film International. He is the author of Animating Eroded Landscape: The Cinema of Ali Hatami (2014).

Reference

Talebinejad, Ahmad (1989), “Mardi Ke Az Asb Oftad: Goft-o-goo ba Jalal Moghaddam” (“The Man Who Fell From the Horse: An Interview with Jalal Moghaddam”), Film Monthly, 7.75, March, pp. 42-45.

 
[1] Ezzatollah Entezami, the high profile Iranian actor who played the lead in Moghaddam’s penultimate film, The Suitcase (1985; first screened in 1989), has told that in instructing him, the director was even resorting to making references to some Hollywood stars of earlier periods.

[2] In most of said projects he also took on the producer’s role. The exception is his Dead-end (1978) which has recently become an object for rediscovery.

[3] It would be safe to assume Sayyad must have been mostly responsible for writing his own character

[4] Maybe this role inspired Dariush Mehrjui to cast Moghaddam in his film Hamoon (1990) as a shrink who is in cahoots with other characters in conspiring against the family and philosophically crisis-ridden titular character. Curiously the beginning of this, now cult film features Hamoon’s Felliniesque nightmare in which the psychiatrist has been metamorphosed into a club-toting ogre!

[5] Sisavash in Persepolis is broadly considered as one of the precursors of the Iranian New Wave. In this modern take on a famous tales from The Book of Kings, the legendary characters are summoned to the contemporary time to enact their tale amidst the ruins of ancient Persepolis.

[6] The emergence of buddy films as a cycle in Iranian cinema of the 1970s is an interesting topic per se which has been recently addressed in a series of lectures on pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema by the film critic Hassan Hosseini.

[7] Including the shrink in Hamoon and a retired print-house worker in Snake Fang (directed by Masoud Kimiai, 1990).

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