Iranian Director's Mournful Trilogy - "The Peddler" Review

By Janet Maslin The New York Times

Though its production company is the Arts Bureau of the Organization for the Propagation of Islamic Thought, the Iranian film "The Peddler" is in no way a work of propaganda. In fact, it takes for granted a devastating, almost unbearably high level of misery. Though it aims at times for an incongruously rueful, almost whimsical tone, its overall impression is one of unadulterated suffering. "The Peddler" is terribly sad, and perhaps even more powerful than it means to be.

"The Peddler" consists of three segments, each one detailing a different aspect of contemporary Iranian life. The first, best and most wrenching of these is "The Happy Child," which the film's writer and director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, has adapted from a story by Alberto Moravia. It begins in a rubble-strewn landscape in Teheran, where an impoverished couple and their four crippled, emaciated children live in the ruins of a demolished double-decker bus. A fifth baby is about to be born, and the film takes an almost comical tone in depicting the husband's efforts to get his wife into a hospital as a special treat. The food is very good there, he tells her reassuringly.

When the ambulance arrives, the wife tells the medics that she is sure her new child will be crippled like the others. They suggest that the cause of this is either malnutrition or inbreeding. ''Why did you have to marry your cousin?'' one of them asks her. ''Whose cousin should I have married, then?'' she replies.

Once the baby is born, the husband and wife embark on a plan to create a better life for their child. They will do this by giving the baby away, preferably to someone wealthy. The rest of the story follows their efforts to abandon the baby in public places that are frequented by the prosperous, and in watching the ways that these plans inevitably backfire. This segment ends with a horribly grim twist, though Mr. Makhmalbaf presents it in an almost lightly ironic way.

The second story is the strangest of the three, something like an Iranian version of "Psycho." "The Birth of an Old Woman" depicts a man who lives a tortured existence with a silent, wizened old mother whom he despises. Wearing a shawl on his head as he cleans their apartment, he subjects his motionless mother to a torrent of anger and abuse. When relief finally comes to him, it is in the form of a hit-and-run driver; in fact, the couple from "The Happy Child" appear in this scene as bystanders scavenging for the injured party's groceries. "The Birth of an Old Woman" concludes on a note that's as muddy as it is mystical.

The title film, which is the last of the three, resembles the others in its way of presenting human situations in primitive, animal terms; just as the sight of a cow giving birth is used to suggest human childbirth in "The Happy Child," this segment uses the slaughtering of a goat to hint ominously (and none too delicately) at what will become of its title character. As in a western gangster film, this Iranian peddler has fallen afoul of a local power broker, and he lives in fear of the consequences. In the film, he imagines his own demise over and over again until his worst fears become reality.

Though Mr. Makhmalbaf has directed these three short films in a conventional and mostly unremarkable style, they are made unexpectedly compelling by the direness of their characters' circumstances and the almost casual way in which such abject conditions are presented. The film's opening credits, which share the stories' unself-conscious style, are accompanied by footage of an eerily serene-looking human fetus floating in a jar.

Originally Published March 26, 1989

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