“The Tenants” - Dariush Mehrjui (1986)

Dariush Mehrjui, the dean of the Iranian New Wave, has long been popular with both critics and the wider Iranian public, with films that often touch on social issues (always a tricky topic area for Iranian filmmakers).  Although most of his films have been serious dramas, Mehrjui has also tried his hand at other genres, even comedies, as with The Tenants (Ejareh-Nesheenha, 1986) and Hamoun (1990).  It is often the case, however, that comedies can be culture-specific and don’t translate so easily across international boundaries.  Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that inside Iran both of these Mehrjui films were wildly popular.  The Tenants, in particular, was a big hit and featured well-known Iranian actors, Akbi Abdi and Ezzatolah Entezami, who had earlier starred in Mehrjui’s Gaav (1969) and The Cycle (Dayereh Mina, 1978).

This film, I should point out, is not what I would call a clever satire, but more along the lines of a lowbrow burlesque, with lots of yelling, pratfalls, and general slapstick tomfoolery – the kind of material that would usually be aimed at the relatively unreflective portion of the filmgoing public and not the kind of output you would normally expect from the cinematically sophisticated likes of Mehrjui.  At any rate the kind of fare displayed in The Tenants is not for all tastes, and, in particular, it wasn’t for mine. Nevertheless despite the ridiculous shenanigans showcased here, there is, even in this case, some social commentary that may be of wider interest. 

The story of the film concerns the problems many people have in finding adequate housing in the big city.  Tehran, in particular, has long had an influx of people moving in from the provinces, which has created an endless housing problem – and along with it, an unscrupulous collection of swindlers seeking to take advantage.

The setting is a four-storey apartment building located on the outskirts of Tehran that was built in such a shabby way that it is already falling apart after only several years.  At the beginning of the film, the poor residents of this building have been hit with eviction notices, because the building is in such a need of major repairs.  It looks like they will all have to move out straightaway, but then things quickly get more complicated.  The issue turns out to be: who has title to the building?  Indeed the issue of ownership and the corrupting influence of private property and general material acquisitiveness is a subtext to the entire film.

The main figures in this tale are
  • Abbas (played by Ezzatolah Entezami).  He is a middle-aged widower who occupies the ground-floor apartment with his mother and his younger brother and his wife.  Abbas works in a city meat shop, but he is also the manager of the apartment building on behalf of the offshore owners.  He wants to make money off the building by evicting the tenants and selling it.
  • The Other Tenants.  There are three sets of tenants who occupy the apartments on the upper floors of the dilapidated building.  They learn that the owners and all their heirs have recently died in a disastrous accident overseas, meaning that the building has no legal heirs.  They are informed by some shady business advisors that they can consequently claim ownership of the building if the building is officially deemed to be “heir uncertain”.
  • The Swindlers.  There are two competing, semi-gangster business operators who deal with real estate, but they are also engaged in all sorts of corrupt practices.  One of gangsters is Qolaam, who advises Abbas, and the other swindler is Baaqery, who advises the tenants.
  • The Workers.  These are lower-class construction workers who are engaged at times to work on the building and try to fix it – or, it seems, to destroy it, depending on who employs them.
When the tenants learn that they can gain title to the building if they are judged to have made substantial improvements, they hire the workers to come in and hastily work on the building.  The tenants are not particularly interested in improving the building – they just want the building to show evidence of major modifications.  This is one of the main comedic elements, because the workers are essentially asked to partially wreck the place so that it appears to have been modified.

Abbas gets wind of the tenants plan and tries to stop them.  There are subsequently all sorts of back-and-forth operations in this regard, and I won’t recount them.  The major idea is that Abbas, the tenants, and the swindlers are all recklessly greedy in their efforts to out-maneuver each other and make money.

But here is where we can start to think of the film as something of a mad-cap allegory on greed, with the various groups in the film deemed to be representing five short-sighted sectors of Iranian society in general:

1. Abbas, the local boss here, would represent the ruling class – perhaps the ancien regime ruling class of Iranian society.  The fault here is their greed and lack of concern for the common good.

2. The "Engineer", Abbas’s brother and the original designer of the building, represents the technical elite.  He is not corrupt, but he washes his hands of responsibility and says he was just doing what he was told to do.

3. The tenants on the three floors of the building:
  • Qandy (played by Akbar Abdi) represents the corrupt business class. His disabled brother, Saalek, represents the neglected needy sector of society who require more support.
  • The Tavassoli family represents the educated middle class. Note that at one point in the film, Mr. Tavassoli is seen picking up a copy of Soren Kierkegaard’s double volume, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death – the same book that would also be held momentarily by the title character in Hamoun.  Since Mehrjui was a philosophy major at UCLA in the US, this again would suggest some sort of self reference.
  • The top-floor resident is a would-be opera singer and is shown to be something of an artistic buffoon.  His pretentious impracticality and generally irrelevant preoccupations suggest that he satirically presents the Iranian intellectual class.
4. The swindlers, the gangs of Baaqery and Qolaam, represent the corrupt but unavoidable insiders in society who undermine the activities of honest citizens.

5. The construction workers represent the working class and are generally portrayed in a sympathetic light.

All of these groups are narrowly focused on their own gains and are only out for themselves. Abbas's mother is something like a Greek chorus and represents a social conscience, as she frequently urges the others to be more honorable. So you can get the metaphorical idea: the edifice of Iranian society is seen to be falling apart because of the short-term, selfish perspectives of all participants. What is really needed is a change of heart – a common cause to support the social community in a cooperative spirit.

But at one point in the story there does appear to be a change of heart on the part of Abbas, which infects everyone else, too.  He invites everyone (all the other tenants and the workers, but not the swindlers) to his apartment for a feast.  Suddenly everyone forgets his or her selfish motivations and pitches in to make a traditional Iranian banquet, and there are several minutes devoted to the joyous and cooperative effort to produce tasty Iranian food.  (Showing the preparation of savory Iranian food is common to several Iranian films, including Sara (1992) and The Fish Fall in Love (2006)).  This moment of joyous cooperation is relatively short-lived, though, because soon the various parties are again greedily contesting for control of the rapidly disintegrating apartment building.

At the end of the film, some government officials show up and put a stop to the rambunctious contest among the tenants. The officials announce that since the building has been legally declared to be “heir uncertain”, the government is taking over title of the building. It will be put on auction and presumably be acquired by business interests that are looking to build a shopping center in the area. So it appears that all the efforts of all the tenants have been in vain.  But there is no evidence at the end that anything has been learned from this experience – in the closing shots, the tenants make remarks suggesting that their greedy instincts are unabated.  The vision of cooperation and a communal environment where selfish, private ownership is not the only focus was fleetingly felt, but it did not endure.

1 comment:

Moonjir said...

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