By Ali Moosavi.

The discovery of the groundbreaking filmmaker’s body with that of his wife in their home, both stabbed, on Saturday, 14 October (found by their daughter), has sent a shockwave throughout the film community at a troubling time….

The news item was brief: the bodies of the Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui and his wife, Vahideh, were found at their villa in the outskirts of Tehran. They were apparently brutally murdered by a knife attack and their bodies were discovered by their daughter. At a time when the daily news is filled with so much tragedy and dread that one would have thought nothing can shock us any further, this short news item sent shock waves through the hearts and minds of all lovers of Iranian Cinema.

For many Iranians, Mehrjui is the greatest director this nation has ever produced. This has been confirmed by a number of polls published in film magazines over the years. The reason for this is simple: he is the only Iranian director whose films were universally admired by audiences and critics alike, both pre and post Iranian Revolution. He suffered from censorship and shelfing of his films, both before and after the Revolution. Yet, he never gave up, never compromised and just soldiered on.

Mehrjui is generally credited with starting the Iranian New Wave with his film, The Cow / Gaav (1969). A tale of a village farmer who has a breakdown following the death of his only cow and goes through a psychological transformation into a cow. This was a groundbreaking film in many ways. It was adapted from a play by Gholamhossein Saedi, a leading Iranian playwright, despised and often imprisoned by the then government. Mehrjui then took the bold decision to use the theatre actors who had performed the play both on stage and in television. The film sat on the shelf for a year, eventually given a screening permit and played in a single cinema in Tehran, where cinephiles flocked to see it. It won prizes at international film festivals and marked the start of a twenty year collaboration between Mehrjui and Ezattollah Entezami, The Cow’s leading actor and arguably the greatest actor in the history of Iranian cinema and theatre.

Co-credited with starting the Iranian New Wave, was Massoud Kimiaie’s Gheysar (1969). A “Revengamatic” genre movie, as Tarantino labels this genre in his entertaining book, Cinema Speculation, it won both critical acclaim and, despite ditching the norm of the commercial Iranian cinema by not including any song and dance, comic relief or a happy ending, was a smash hit at the box office. The passage of time has however been much kinder to The Cow.

The Cow (1969)

Mehrjui continued his use of stage actors in his films but developed a style which both pleased the critics and was popular with the audiences. In this approach he used a simple, linear storyline, with a strong narrative, and used a combination of veteran stage actors and superstars of Iranian cinema. Within this simple structure, he infused complex sociological and philosophical themes – he had majored in philosophy from UCLA, with some cinema coursework. Perhaps the apex of this style was The Cycle, also adapted from a Saedi story. Using veteran stage actors Ezattollah Entezami and Ali Nassirian, newcomer Saeed Kangarani and the female superstar and sex symbol of commercial Iranian cinema, Foruzan, The Cycle examined the cycle of corruption in Iranian society by focusing on the illegal but ongoing practice of getting blood from addicts and the homeless and selling it to hospitals by businessmen without any conscience. The powerful medical lobby in Iran managed to persuade the culture ministry to shelf the film, where it sat for 3 years until outside pressure led to its release in 1977. I remember watching the film in an art house cinema in Manchester, UK and being blown away by it.

The Cycle (1977)

After the revolution, using the same style, he made the social comedy The Tenants (1987), a smash hit and his biggest ever success at the box office. His post-revolution period includes the Felliniesque Hamoun (1990), which has developed a strong cult following and boasts an unforgettable performance by the late Khosrow Shakibaie in the title role. After that film, Mehrjui started a period of films with female leads, focusing on the issues concerning women in Iran, and some of which resonated with women worldwide, at a time when this was not fashionable and considered box office poison. Banoo (1991), was a free adaptation of Bunuel’s Viridiana, Sara (1993), inspired by Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, received the Golden Seashell for the Best Film at the 1993 San Sebastian International Film Festival. Leila (1996) completed this period. Then, in 1998 came The Pear Tree (see top image), my favourite film of Mehrjui’s post revolution period. It is a beautifully realized story of a writer in his autumn years reflecting back on his first love. Homayoun Ershadi, from Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), starred as the writer and Golshifteh Farahani, in her debut, played his first love. The Pear Tree is a favourite of many Mehrjui fans. Mum’s Guest (2004) is a funny, touching love letter to cinema. In my view, Mehrjui’s last great film was Santouri (2007), a heartfelt cry against the condescending and antagonistic attitude towards musicians, which was prevailing in Iran at that time. This film was also forced to sit on the shelf and before it could obtain screening permit, its pirate copies were widely distributed. This dealt such a shattering blow to Mehrjui that he never fully recovered from it.

I met Mehrjui once. It was in 2015 and he was directing a stage adaptation of Sam Shepheard’s True West (see below). Being a perfectionist, he checked the sound and lighting in the small auditorium, checked the audience’s view of the stage and asked me: do you think many will come? Later, after the play finished to the enthusiastic applause of a packed theatre, the audience called out his name and he came on the stage to thank the cast and the audience. The Iranian cinema will forever be thankful to Dariush Mehrjui. Perhaps after his sad and still unfathomable demise, Mehrjui’s films will at last be given widespread retrospectives at international film festivals, get proper DVD releases and achieve the very high praise and reputation that they undoubtedly deserve.

The author with Mehrjui, 2015

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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