Foreign films are a fascinating way to learn the subtleties of another culture, especially when conceived and executed with the finesse and sensitivity that Iranian filmmaker Mehrjui brings to this feature.
The film opens at a family gathering, celebrating a religious Shi’ite Moslem holiday; all participate in making shol-e-zard, a traditional pudding; the social and family bonds made deeper during its cooking, seasoning, mixing, decorating, and serving. There, Leila (Leila Hatami) is introduced by her brother to a kind young man, Reza (Ali Mosaffa), who becomes her husband two months later. They seem very much in love and well matched, sharing cooking, laughs, and an easy communication with each other. They are modern urbanites, well educated, living with all of the conveniences of twentieth century Iran.
The problem comes when Leila discovers she is infertile, which goes very much against the wishes and plans of her-mother-in-law, who must have a (preferably male) heir from her only son. The couple goes to a fertility clinic, where Leila tries several treatments and procedures, all of which fail. Reza assures his wife that he doesn’t care about having children, and that he loves Leila for herself; we believe him, as their relationship is always portrayed as tender, understanding, and compassionate.
The mother-in-law, however, is intent on having her grandchild. After ascertaining that Leila is indeed barren (by keeping constant tabs on the couple via phone calls and visits), she embarks on a crusade to set things right. She suggests that Leila allow Reza to take a second wife, who will produce a child. Craftily and persistently, she persuades Leila to agree, convincing her that it is the thing for a dutiful wife to do. (It is acceptable, and in keeping with Iranian tradition, we observe, for a man to have more than one wife). Never is Leila rude or disrespectful with the mother-in-law, though the emotional demand that has been placed on her is almost unbearable, and the self-interested mother-in-law is clearly forcing her own agenda, against the will of her son, who is somehow unable to stand up to her.
Despite continued protests that he doesn’t need children, and that he is only doing Leila’s bidding, Reza consents to a series of matchmaking interviews with potential second wives. Leila helps Reza prepare for each meeting, choosing his clothing, accompanying him in the car to each address, and waiting outside while he makes his visits. All the while, in voice-overs, Leila describes her inner turmoil. Still very much in love with her husband, she dutifully awaits the result of each encounter. The first few meetings do not go well; Reza finds unworkable faults with his potential mates, and he and Leila are able to laugh off these failed encounters, which ironically and poignantly bring them closer together. We observe Leila’s restrained mix of anticipation and an almost martyr-like fidelity to her cause.
Meanwhile, members of Leila’s family try to convince her that she is making a big mistake, and that she—and Reza—should stand up to Reza’s mother and live the life they want to live. Leila is resolute in her purpose, resigned to her fate, though her internal monologue reveals the excruciating emotional pain she is experiencing. For his part, Reza seems caught in the middle, bending to both his mother’s selfish wishes and his wife’s stoic and self-effacing actions, ignoring his own needs and wishes. His unassertive stance makes him almost a minor character compared to Leila’s strength and suffering.
Reza finally meets a young widow who understands and accepts his situation, and, after she meets with Leila’s approval, the second wedding quickly ensues. Leila stays home on the wedding day, cleaning the house, removing all of her personal belongings from the nuptial bedroom, and decorating every room in the house with flowers from the garden.
The emotional climax comes when the groom returns home with bride #2 and a sizeable retinue from the wedding party. They linger and socialize in the house downstairs, as Leila locks herself in the dark guest room, all but forgotten. She has become almost invisible. No one except Reza seems to even remember that Leila lives here. A male guest, ostensibly looking for the bathroom, accidentally opens the door to her room, sees her, and then closes the door, as though trying to forget her existence. The bride’s lavish dress, the elaborately decorated car, combined with the loud jubilation of the guests, contrast sharply with Leila’s buried emotion, which has now reached its breaking point. She has reached the lowest low in her life, the darkness and solitude of her hiding place representing not death, but the suffocating live burial of her emotional being.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that a sort of poetic justice prevails.
The interplay of love, guilt, self-sacrifice, jealousy, and heartache felt by Leila’s character are so palpable that I found myself living her predicament. Through it all, she bears her pain with the stoicism of Joan of Arc; her selflessness brings about her salvation in the end.
The ubiquity of family; the public nature of private affairs within the family group; and the unwillingness to disrespect the wishes of elder family members, are notable cultural features in this film. And while the female voice in Iran may find fewer opportunities for public expression than that of men, this film shows the power and strength of women in Iranian family and society.