Dariush Mehrjui

Dariush Mehrjui (born 8 December 1939, Tehran) is an Iranian filmmaker, novelist and translator. Mehrjui is a pioneering figure in the Iranian New Wave movement of the 1970s, and some of his films, like “The Cow”, are among the most important Iranian films ever made. Mehrjui studied philosophy at UCLA, returned to Iran in 1966 and directed his debut film the following year. Much like the characters of his stories, the fundamental elements of his cinema are complex, varied and often contradictory. A filmmaker equally infatuated with spiritual and mystical abstractions, as well as instinctual conflicts and materialistic desires.

“The Cow” (1969) is undoubtably one of the greatest Iranian films of all time. After the failure of his first commercial film, Mehrjui decided to borrow inspiration from the eminent European cinema for his next project, especially French realism and Italian neorealism. He received the funding from the ministry of culture by disguising his project as a documentary on the way of life in smaller towns of Iran, as opposed to revealing the actual film which was a chilling fiction set in an Iranian village. All the key elements of Mehrjui’s cinema are on display in his sophomore film: madness, typical characters, social commentary, the use of allegories and parables, psychological revelations and subjects surrounding sexual desire and fertility. The film is adapted from a story by Gholamhossein Sa’edi, which explains the uncanny eeriness present on screen. Before “The Cow” was released, villages were typically cliché locations in Iranian cinema; with their people depicted as simple and their lives as basic, often used to mirror the complexity of urban life. But Mehrjui portrayed the reality of a village; a location plagued by its own inner-contradictions as well as a general miniature example of Iran at the time. Mehrjui and Sa’edi are uniquely talented in creating sociopolitical parables that revolve around psychological revelations, and this talent is most evident in “The Cow”. It was because of that same sociopolitical approach that “The Cow” did not receive its presentation permit until a year after its completion, and subsequently became one of Ayatollah Khomeini’s few favorite films.

“The Postman” (1972) is an adaptation of “Woyzeck” by Georg Büchner. Here Mehrjui explores one of the more common themes in Film Farsi: impotence. The protagonist is a postman who lives in his squire’s house along with his beautiful wife. Due to his impotence, the postman is an anxious and unstable person, and his doctor is a veterinarian who prescribes him herbal medicine. The squire’s nephew returns home from abroad and starts having an affair with the postman’s wife. The postman’s condition deteriorates day after day and he eventually murders the nephew with a knife. The issue of impotence here, unlike in Film Farsi, is not a comical crutch and an excuse to dive into farce. Instead, it’s used to highlight the social gap: a socially impotent person is also sexually impotent. The issues of impotence and infertility are key subjects in Mehrjui’s cinema and often carry heavier sociopolitical messages. The impotent and the nonbelievers ultimately have the same destiny: madness.

Video excerpt taken from “The Postman” (1972)

Mehrjui adapts yet another story by Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi for “Dāyere-ye Minā” (The Cycle, 1975) and ends up creating one of his best cinematic works. The film is about a young man living on the outskirts of Tehran who as a necessity, sells his own blood in order to pay for his ailing father’s treatment. He gradually becomes a small-time blood dealer and buys blood cheaply from the poor and addicts and sells them to hospitals. Much like Mehrjui’s other works, bodies carry great value here and the exploitation of people in society is depicted through a literal exploitation of their bodies. Mehrjui’s cinema, especially the pre-revolution portion of it, is filled with bodily and animalistic elements where bodies are constantly being manipulated by alien forces. Mehrjui’s emphasis on bodies fades after the revolutions and gets replaced by mystical elements. In “Pari” (1995), a character describes its brother who committed suicide as: “his soul was bigger than his body and couldn’t stand the material world anymore.” Although, Mehrjui’s fascination with bodies doesn’t completely disappear after the revolution; for example, “Mum’s Guests” (2004) is a film in admiration of eating, drinking, and satisfying bodily desires.

Video excerpt taken from “The Cycle” (1975)

“The Tenants” (1986) is Mehrjui’s most significant comedy, where he makes one of his favorite stylistic choices: limited locations. The main location where the story takes place is an apartment in the suburbs of Tehran that resembles a strange building in an abandoned desert more than anything else. Whenever Mehrjui uses a limited number of locations, we have to be prepared for an abundance of characters. Characters with different principals and behaviors who drive the story forward by being stuck in a closed space together. “The Tenants” is Mehrjui’s most energetic and anarchistic film that borderlines on slapstick humor. The characters are either making a mess or are mixed-up in other people’s mess. Their energy and movement is non-stop and this amount of tension and contradiction is too much for a small apartment to take on. A finite space for melodrama and infinite comedic energy makes guessing the ending of the film quite easy: demolition of the entire building.

Video excerpt taken from “The Tenants” (1986)

“Hamoun” (1989) is undoubtably Dariush Mehrjui’s most famous and popular film, which also has the biggest cult following in Iranian cinema. The admirers of the film have seen “Hamoun” repeatedly over the years and know its dialogue and scenes by heart. All of Mehrjui’s cinematic themes are gathered in one place in “Hamoun”. The old Mehrjui and the new Mehrjui are confronted with each other in the film: Hamid Hamoun against Ali Abedini; body against soul; insanity against serenity; realities against divinities; cinema against philosophy. The opening scene is one of the most beautiful moments in Mehrjui’s cinema: the director, heavily influenced by Fellini’s cinema, gathers all the people from his life in an imaginary location to once again show us his infatuation with having a mass of characters in a limited space.

Video excerpt taken from “Hamoun” (1989)