Dariush Mehrjui, one of the great Iranian filmmakers, was among the first to draw international attention to Iranian cinema with his groundbreaking Gaav (1969). Leila (1998), perhaps his finest work, tells the story of the tensions that are brought to bear on a young newly married woman who discovers that she is infertile. This may not sound like a subject with universal dramatic appeal, but in fact the film is an extremely well-crafted exploration of the human psyche that goes beyond those particular circumstances.
In all of Mehrjui’s films there is a subtle tension between the outlook of the individual and the cultural norms of society – a tension which goes beyond the simple black-and-white dichotomy of a heroic individual struggling against selfish and materialistic social forces. Mehrjui’s skill in exploring the nuances of these tensions is what makes him a leading exponent of Existentialism in Film, and certainly Leila stands as one of his best. Note that for various social and psychological reasons that I won’t delve into here, the Existentialist film protagonist is usually a man (a notable exceptions is Antonioni's Red Desert), but in Leila it’s the feminine perspective that takes centre stage, with the script based on a story by a woman, Mahnaz Ansarian.
The entire story of Leila is depicted from her individual perspective, and it is presented as a subjective recollection of past events. There are no scenes from any objective narrator’s point of view. In the beginning of the film, Leila recounts her upper-class family's gathering involving the preparation of a shol-e-zard (a form of Persian pudding) in connection with a Shi’ite Moslem religious day commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. This five-minute opening scene can serve as a reminder to Westerners that the extended family is a dominant factor in all Iranian social life. It is at this feast that Leila captures a distant glimpse of a young man, Reza, that her brother has brought to the gathering. In voice-over Leila then quickly reveals she and Reza were married two months later – a jump in the narration that gives one the feeling of just how abrupt and business-like their courtship must have been. But in a series of brief scenes that follow, we soon see that this particular match was a stunning success – they are blissfully happy with each other and share a vital and caring relationship. It is also clear early on that both Leila and Reza are highly educated and live in a modern big-city milieu furnished with the latest electronic technology. They represent modern Iran.
But not long later, the central problem of the film is presented. For many Iranian marriages, it is expected that the wife will very soon become pregnant after the honeymoon. This doesn’t happen for Leila and Reza, and after visiting some medical clinics, they learn that Leila is infertile. Knowing how important it is in Iranian society for the wife to be a mother to the husband’s children, the self-effacing Leila humbly offers Reza the chance of divorcing her so that he can find someone to bear his children. Reza, a modern, educated Iranian, scoffs at such an idea, and tells Leila that he married her for herself, not for baby-making. They then set about exploring various medical options that might lead to successful childbirth. When those options are exhausted, they then consider adopting an orphan; but nothing works out. Throughout this period, Reza and Leila are seen as a loving couple, but from Leila’s voice-over narrative one can feel the increasing pressure that is being placed on her. The problem is her problem, and the entire extended family on Reza’s side wants to know every detail of their clinical and orphanage visits. This absence of privacy is typical in Iranian families and is part of the life there: everyone knows all your personal details.
At another outdoor family gathering, Reza’s mother takes Leila aside and tells her that she must consent to Reza’s having a second wife (permissible in Iran) in order to produce a male heir. The mother has four children, but only one son, Reza, and she feels that it is mandatory that Reza produce a son in order to continue the line. Although some reviewers have seen Reza’s mother as an evil witch, she is not presented in an unrealistic manner. True, she is insistent and conniving, but in a society where women have no overt power, one needs to learn other kinds of behaviour in order to get one’s way. Her weapon, which is sometimes all that an aging parent has left, is guilt, and she alternately scolds and wheedles Leila not to be selfish and to allow her husband, whom Leila claims to love, to gain what she claims he really wants: fatherhood of a son.
Later, Leila tells Reza about what his mother has said and wonders whether maybe she is right. But, again, Reza dismisses such an idea as ridiculous. He is a modern, educated man who loves his wife, and he will not have anything to do with backward polygamous practices. Nevertheless, Leila, who strives to be a good, loving Moslem, is affected by her mother-in-law's insistence and guiltily wonders if she, herself, is a selfish woman. She tells Reza that she will not stand in the way if he want to have a second wife.
As the story progresses, Leila’s mother-in-law continues to push her case, almost like Iago whispering into Othello’s ear, and tells her that Reza really does long for a son, but is afraid of offending Leila. Reza, for his part, insists that his mother is crazy and that he has defiantly rejected her proposals. But since we are only seeing the world through Leila’s eyes, we never see him stand up to his mother, Leila is only told about such things second-hand. But Reza’s mother is also telling Leila, second-hand, that Reza really does desperately want a son and wishes Leila would consent to his having a second wife. Whom is Leila to believe? She wants to believe Reza, but the increasing doubts about her self-worth and her desire to follow the path of righteousness pushes her in the mother-in-law’s direction.
Eventually the guilt-ridden Leila is convinced by her mother-in-law that if she really does love her husband, then she must insist that he go ahead and attend interviews with candidate second wives his mother has found for him. Of course, she is horrified by the thought of a second wife coming into her household, but she sees the entire process as something of a test of their love. She belives that she should make everything possible for Reza so that he can follow the path of his true happiness. If they are truly in love and they are willing to give up all for love, then everything should come out all right. This is the crux of the struggle in the film. Both Leila and Reza are striving to come to terms with both modern Western liberal thinking and traditional Iranian cultural practice that are frequently in conflict. When in doubt, Leila falls back on the conviction that she loves her husband, totally, and that she should be absolutely unselfish. As more and more pressure is placed on her, she is many times seen praying to God and asking for forgiveness. Reza, too, tries to accommodate the people around him in order to avoid stirring up trouble. In fact, this is what many modern people have to do in traditional societies -- after all, they cannot transform an entire society over night, can they? And, anyway, these moderns still usually have a strong feeling for the positive values that are part of their traditional culture. They do not want to reject their traditional culture entirely, but instead are looking for some sort of middle way.
So Reza, trying to follow the path of least resistance, agrees to see the candidate women, but he also tries to incorporate Leila into the process. He states that he will only marry a second woman if Leila approves the choice. Again the pressure is placed back on Leila, and it’s beginning to take its toll. Reza wants Leila to accompany him to the fiancé interview rendezvous, but Leila has to be dropped off nearby and must endure a humiliating and stressful wait while the interviews takes place without her. By now Leila’s only means of support come from her inner conviction that the must act selflessly and align herself with the will of God. Even when Reza’s sisters rally to her support and tell her to put an end to this second-wife operation, it is too late, and Leila is already too far down the track of her own obsession with selflessness. The sister-in-laws' supporting arguments are only directed towards Leila's selfish interests, and, anyway, Leila has become increasingly alienated from the idea of salvaging her diminished position in the family.
Finally, a suitable bride is found, and Leila cannot find it in her heart to disapprove. On the wedding night, Leila realises that she must sleep in the spare bedroom, and she finally breaks down and flees to her parents’ home. The next day Reza comes to Leila’s parental home and begs her to return. He informs them all that he was so distressed by her anguish that “he couldn’t do anything” that night (a fairly bold statement to appear in an Iranian film). He insists that he only took the second wife because that was what he thought Leila wanted: she had pushed him into it. But Leila is unmovable; the loving relationship they had is now gone forever.
In the final scenes, Leila recounts how Reza soon had a child, a daughter, by the second wife, but since there was no love in that relationship, Reza granted that women a divorce. At the end, he comes with his little two-year-old daughter to another family shol-e-zard feast for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, hoping to somehow get Leila to come back to him. But for Leila, whose feeling for Reza is now mostly pity, their relationship is dead.
There are three themes that can be discerned in Leila, but most critics have only focussed on the first one. The other two themes, however, are what give the film its potency and artistic expression:
- The first theme is the issue of the role of women in Iranian society. Women have no rights and are browbeaten over the course of their upbringing to see themselves as servants to their husbands. To a Western observer, the entire story seems outrageous. How could Reza consent to a second wife, if he claims to be a modern? Indeed, most Iranians also see the plot as bordering on the absurd. In fact, many Iranians reject the story as being so outlandish that they cannot engage with it. But I think this theme is merely a metaphor for the other two themes below.
- The second theme is more general and concerns the difficulty that young people inevitably have (and this can apply anywhere) accommodating to the demands of society. In this sense, we can compare Leila to Elia Kazan’s Splendour in the Grass (1961), in which two young teenage lovers are almost driven mad by the conflicting pressures they feel in their Midwestern US society. In Leila, both Reza and Leila are trying to walk a tightrope that will enable them to have their own personal, romantic relationship and still live within the demanding and pervasive social context of Iranian society.
- But it’s the third theme that I find most interesting and what ultimately makes the film profound: the theme of self-destructiveness, here on Leila’s part. Iranians have a word in Farsi, “ghahr”, which is difficult to translate precisely but refers to the tendency of psychological withdrawal from an associate who has committed some offense. Rather than becoming hostile when one is offended, the Iranian who is “ghahr” with someone withdraws from any further interaction. This withdrawal is not just the external manifestation of silence; it is an inner psychological withdrawal from the person who has offended – one shuts the door. People from all cultures have this tendency, but Iranians have developed and refined this kind of response more than others. In a sense, one might say that being ghahr may have some useful qualities, because it eliminates the chance of further abrasive interactions: fistfights are less likely to break out. But being ghahr is an act, not only of destroying a relationship with someone, but also of self-destruction. We withdraw to a privileged inner sanctum and are no longer able to engage in an unguarded, loving relationship with the other. In this film, we watch Leila’s relentless withdrawal, despite her sincere efforts to act in a loving way. This is the great tragedy.
A story like this cannot be told effectively without considerable artistic investment. The acting in the film is superb throughout. In particular, the luminous Leila Hatami, daughter of well-known Iranian film director, Ali Hatami, gives an outstanding performance in the title role. A hauntingly beautiful woman, she conveys vulnerability, tenderness, and emerging anxiety through the subtlest facial expressions. More generally, the fact that all the characters are realistically presented is what keeps this film, whose plot always teeters on the edge of unbelievability, absorbing all the way.
Because this story is entirely Leila’a narrative account, there are camera effects used to portray the psychological stress she is under. For example there are a great many close-up shots of Leila occupied with ordinary household activities. These include handling traditional artifacts, such as samovars, as well as more modern devices, such as cordless phones. These all give a focus and tempo for the world of practical activities in which she lives. Telephones are a metaphor for the relentless intrusive acts of her mother-in-law, who is constantly calling and demanding an update concerning the couple’s private life. Mehrjui frequently has red-tinted shots and fade-outs to red, instead of black, to convey the emotional distress (more effectively used here than in Sara, Mehrjui's 1992 film that is worth comparing to Leila). To present some of the most intrusive and jarring statements from her family members, as well as some of Leila’s own telling reflections, Merhjui breaks the “fourth wall” and has people speaking directly to the camera. This serves to remind us that what we are seeing is not documentary reality, but Leila’s heartbreaking story.