“Marmoulak” - Kamal Tabrizi (2004)

Marmoulak (The Lizard, 2004) is a popular Iranian film that has been interpreted in somewhat different ways by different people.  Many people have seen it as a comedy, even a farce, but I considerate it to be a profound existential and social satire, more along the lines of Voltaire’s Candide (1759) or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943).  Indeed, explicit reference to de Saint-Exupéry’s famous novella is made in this story. 

The film concerns a prison convict who escapes by masquerading as an Islamic mullah and the ensuing complications that arise from his disguise.  Commercially released in Iran in 2004, the film was an instant smash hit with critics and at the box office [1,2].  But after concerns about the film were expressed by members of the Islamic clergy, the government banned the film after only three weeks.  The clerical critics were evidently concerned that the religion was being laughed at, but I would say that, on the contrary, the film offers a sympathetic portrait of how religious principles can enter into the lives of all types of people.  In fact some observers have connected this film’s message with the thinking of noted Iranian Islamic and Sufi thinker Abdolkarim  Soroush [3]

Nevertheless, Marmoulak is not just any narrowly-focused art house fare [3]. The film has excellent production values with a commercial-film cinematic pallette covering a spectrum of social activities.  It was directed by Kamal Tabrizi, written by Peyman Ghasem Khani, and with cinematography by Hamid Khozouie; and it features an outstanding acting performance by Parviz Parastui in the lead role.  (Parastui  would soon also appear in Border Café (Café Transit, 2005) and The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon, 2005)).

The story of the film traces the actions of and what happens to Reza Meshgali, aka “Marmoulak”, which is the Farsi word for ‘Lizard’.  Reza has been given that nickname on account of his uncanny ability to climb high brick walls unaided, like a lizard.  However, note that in Farsi the term‘marmoulak’ is also used metaphorically to refer to a chameleon, which is a particular type of lizard that changes its skin color in order to adapt to its surroundings.  And in this story our Reza, The Lizard (played by Parviz Parastui) does seem to be a chameleon at various times when he alters his identity as the changing circumstances demand. 

Actually, confused labeling is a thematic undertone in this story.  On several occasions people get lost looking for an address, because street names and numbering have unaccountably been changed by the local authorities.  In addition, although in most stories or dramas, the creators are careful to make sure each character has a distinct name, in this story, in contrast, there are several people named Reza, the confusion concerning which is part of the plot.

However, the most basic theme concerns religious interpretation.  Over the course of Marmoulak’s narrative, the viewer is exposed to two distinct and contrasting ways of interpreting Islam (or virtually any religion, for that matter) [4]:
  1. Literal Rule Following – Adherence to rigid laws and associated sanctified text.  This adherence to traditional rules takes no account of context and the human feelings associated with any circumstantial context. 
     
  2. Loving Compassion – Adoption of the intrinsic and heartfelt directive to love and come to the aid of those in one’s surroundings in contextually appropriate ways. This is suggested in the film by the phrase, “there are as many ways to reach God as there are people.”
Associated with each of these two contrasting interpretations of the sacred teachings is a distinctive approach for leading others to the higher realms of being:
  • Literal Rule Following –> Punishment – the path to salvation is a forced march
     
  • Loving Compassion –> Taming (as outlined by the fox in de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince)
In this story, Reza, The Lizard, gradually and intuitively discovers the right path to follow.  In this connection, I will identify below (with “CA-#”) some moments in the narrative when Reza seems to take a step further in his progression towards compassionate altruism.

The story of Marmoulak plays out over the course of five acts.

1.  Reza, The Lizard, in Prison
Reza Meshgali, a small-time thief, has been sentenced to life imprisonment for armed robbery and is brought before the heartless prison warden Mojaver (played by Bahram Ebrahimi).  Mojaver is committed to spiritual restitution by imposing punishment, so we can see he follows the Literal Rule Following path.  He immediately sends Reza to a week of solitary confinement in order to help straighten him out. 

Later, when Reza is out of solitary and has a chance to wander in the prison courtyard, he rescues a pigeon caught in the barbed wire atop the prison wall by using his marmoulak skill to scale the wall and save the pigeon.  When Mojaver sees this, he reassigns Reza to another week of solitary confinement.  All of this “restitutional” punishment depresses Reza and makes him suicidal, an attempt for which lands him in the prison infirmary.

In the infirmary bed next to his, Reza finds not a prisoner, but a temporarily-ill mullah, Hajji Reza Ahmadi (played by Shahrokh Foroutanian, who also appeared in Going By (Az Kenar-e Ham Migozarim, 2001)).  Mullah Reza is not a sanctimonious preacher, but a sympathetic member of the working class.  He tells Reza, The Lizard, that there is no single path to God – “there are as many ways to reach God as there are people.”  Then he reads to him a passage from de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, where the fox tells the little prince to tame him.  When the prince asks the fox what that means, the fox responds that it means, “make me love you”.

Then Hajji Reza goes to take a shower, leaving on the bed his clerical garb, which Reza, The Lizard, opportunistically dons and uses as a disguise to escape from the prison. 

2.  On the Way to the Border Town
Reza’s goal is to escape to Turkey, so after stealing some money from a private taxi, he meets with an outlaw friend who tells him to travel to a border town and hook up with a Mahmoud Montazedi, who is a passport forger.  So, still wearing his mullah garb, Reza, who now calls himself “Hajji Reza”, boards a train headed for the border town.

In his private train car Reza is joined by two ladies, one of whom, Faezeh (Rana Azadvar), is young and pretty.  Reza, still the selfish nihilist at this pont, is instantly attracted.  The other woman is Faezeh’s mother, and she explains how she recently arranged for her daughter’s divorce from her thuggish and abusive husband.
  
On the long train ride Reza also meets some government officials who are impressed with having a hajji on their train and arrange for Reza to conduct a prayer session for the passengers at one stopover.  This is a scary proposition for Reza, but he somehow manages to fumble his way through it.

Upon arrival in the border town, Reza presumably hopes to disappear into the town, but he is unexpectedly met by some religious enthusiasts who have been excitedly awaiting the arrival of their new village mullah, who, by happenstance, is named “Hajji Reza”.  They usher him to their mosque, which hasn’t had a fully qualified mullah for a year.  At the mosque Reza happens to see a mute young boy staring at him.  This mute boy is seen on subsequent occasions throughout the film, and he seems to be a symbol of nonjudgemtal innocence.

Meanwhile back at the prison in Tehran, Mojaver is shown to be extremely upset over Reza’s escape.

3.  Reza, the Village Mullah 
Originally hoping to quickly grab his fake passport and disappear across the border, Reza now has the public eye upon him and finds himself forced to attend to the ritual duties of the mosque’s mullah.  Compelled to give a sermon to the assembled congregation, Reza tells all of them what he had just learned from the mullah he had met in prison (CA-1):
There are as many ways to reach God as there are people – even for the prisoner.
The listeners are inspired by this message, particularly two earnest young parishioners Gholamali (Hossein Soleiman) and Mojtaba (Cyrus Hemati).  They pepper Reza with all sorts of odd questions concerning Islamic ritual, such as 
  • How often does one pray at the North Pole, where a day lasts six months?
     
  • How should astronauts in outer space pray?
Reza uses his own intuition to give answers to these questions (CA-2 and CA-3), and the parishioners are further convinced of Reza’s divine enlightenment.  However, Reza stills has a ways to go.  After he sees Faezeh’s ex-husband, Javad Delangiz,  robbing a food store, his old habits cause him to urge the store owner to respond to this sort of thing with violence. 

Then after some difficulties, Reza makes it to Mahmoud Montazedi’s home where his grieving mother (Farideh Sepah Mansour ) informs him that her son has been imprisoned and that the fake passport is unavailable. 

4.  A Village Transformed
However, Reza’s idolizers, Gholamali and Mojtaba, have been surreptitiously tracking Reza’s evening meanderings in the poor village areas and wrongly impute these to be secretive acts of charity on the part of the mullah.  When these activities are reported to the other parishioners, they are even more convinced of Reza’s saintliness, and they all tearfully come to Reza’s quarters to provide him alms to give to the poor.

Meanwhile Mojaver, tracking Reza, has come to the border town, although he doesn’t know that Reza, unrecognizable in his clerical garb, is now the village mullah.

Reza, for his part, continues spreading his own version of the Word.  Walking through the park one day, he comes upon Gholamali talking alone with a single young woman.  Gholamali immediately expresses shame for this “sin”.  But Reza scoffs at such assumptions of guilt, telling the young man (CA-4),
“if He [God] were against these things, he wouldn’t give us the tools for mischief”. 
And later when he comes home, Reza learns that Javad Delangiz has been abusing Faezeh again, and he goes to Delangiz’s locked home to query him.  With a crowd of worshipful villagers looking on, Reza uses his marmoulak skills again to scale the wall of the home and confront Delangiz.  When Delangiz proves to be belligerent, Reza knocks him out cold with a professional head-butt.  When the man comes to, he realizes that he has met his match, and he instantly becomes a total convert, renouncing crime and now following the religious path.

However, Reza, still trying to escape the country, finds another person, a woman named Ozra, in the poor quarter who can make him a fake passport.  But just before she is about to do it, she receives alms from the former criminal Delangiz, and she, too, is moved to renounce illegal activities.  In fact Reza’s sermons at the mosque are now jam-packed with listeners, since shadier characters from the criminal underworld, influenced by  Delangiz’s conversion, are coming, too.

But now a power-hungry member of the upper class, Engineer Shojayi, hears about Hajji Reza’s renown and wants to use him to support his candidacy for parliament.  In this connection he forcibly ushers Reza to the local prison so that he can host a sermon by Reza to the prisoners there.  When the tremulous Reza assumes the pulpit, he is shocked to see Mojaver in the audience and is also moved to be asked to pass on wisdom to people of his own kind, i.e. prisoners.  Tearfully, he tells them (CA-5):
  • The gates of prison may be closed to you, but God’s gates are always open.
  • God doesn’t only belong to good people.
  • It is only God who doesn’t look at people differently.
  • We have to do something to tame people.  Taming means creating love.
  • Man is worthy of honor for his soul and humanity.  Beautiful attire does not reflect his worth.
  • I hope all of you will be released from here very soon and that you can find your path.  Please pray for me to find a path, as well
We now see that Reza’s forced assumption of piety has led to his own conversion, too. 

Afterwards, Reza and Shojayi are taken to a discussion room with prison officials, where the suspicious Mojaver, still not fully recognizing Reza, praises him for his eloquence.  But during this meeting, Reza overhears a loudspeaker announcement that prisoner Mahmoud Montazedi has been summoned to go the visitor’s room.  Reza quickly excuses himself from the discussion room to go to the toilet.  At the visitor’s room Reza learns from Montazedi that his mother does indeed have the fake passport for him and that he should go back to her and properly identify himself this time as Reza, The Lizard.

5.  Reza’s Exit
Reza goes back to Mahmoud Montazedi’s mother and collects the fake passport.  Then he goes to the border crossing, but he is told it is temporarily closed for a few hours, so he returns to town.  Back in the village, he comes upon Faezeh carrying some heavy shopping bags, and he offers to carry them for her to her home.  She gratefully accepts his offer, and she invites him for tea at her home, where she will be alone.  Reza is tempted by this offer, but he refuses it and gets the reformed Delangiz to carry her bags instead (CA-6).

But at the police station, Mojaver gets official word that the real Hajji Reza meant for this village had recently passed away, and that is why the villagers had mistakenly assumed that Reza, The Lizard, was their mullah when he arrived at the train station wearing clerical garb.  Mojaver also learns that Mahmoud Montazedi has testified that Reza was not armed during the crime they had committed together, and so Reza’s prison sentence should be reduced.  So Mojaver goes ahead and confronts Reza and has him taken into custody.
   
Before they are all to depart in the police car, Reza sees the mute boy one last time.  He hands over to the boy his clerical clothes, and he tells him they are helpful for taming people.   Reza adds further that it is good for people to become tamed (CA-7), and the boy responds softly, but audibly, in the affirmative.  Yes, he understands – and we do, too.

As the police car with Reza aboard drives off into the town, the final shot shows the mosque congregation listening to holy singing and being dimly aware of the background sound of the car being driven away.


Marmoulak is a well-crafted drama with excellent, nuanced acting performances, particularly on the part of Parviz Parastui in the title role.  An interesting narrative theme featured in the film is that of mistaken identity.  Reza’s masquerade as a mullah sometimes gets him out of trouble, but it also leads to some lost connections (such as with Mahmoud Montazedi’s mother and with city taxi cabs).  But in this case the mistaken identity also helps lead to the dissimulator taking on the virtues of his disguised role.

But at a deeper level, the film gives the viewer a beautifully dramatized depiction of the contrast between two distinctly different paths toward existential enlightenment:
  • rule-following driven by punishment and 
  • compassionate love driven by “taming”.
Mojaver espoused the former path, but Reza, The Lizard, found his way along the second path.  And Reza’s path was just one example of the unlimited number of ways of reaching compassionate spiritual fulfillment.  But all those many ways involve taming – adapting to the circumstances in order to generate and respond to love.  And this capacity for love is intrinsic to humanity and not some external notion that needs to be injected into inherently sinful human beings [5].  Religion, in its most benevolent form, can help us (tame us) to invoke that loving feeling that is appropriate for each of us.  This is what Marmoulak is showing us.  So Marmoulak does not make fun of religion; rather, the film shows an example of religion serving as a vehicle for evoking our intrinsic instincts for altruistic love. 
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Deborah Young, “The Lizard”, Variety (16 May 2004).  x 
  2. Jonathan Curiel, “FILM CLIPS / Also opening today”, SFGate, (6 August 2004).    
  3. William Brown, “There are as many paths to the time-image as there are films in the world’: Deleuze and “The Lizard”“, Chapter 5, Deleuze and Film (Deleuze Connections), (ed. by David Martin-Jones and William Brown), Edinburgh University Press, (2012), pp. 88-103.      
  4. The Film Sufi, "The Two Religions", The Film Sufi, (30 May 2015).
  5. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015).

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