"Leila" Review

By Peter Rainer New York Magazine

As the young middle-class wife in the Iranian film "Leila" (at the Cinema Village), the actress Leila Hatami has an extraordinary look: Dressed in black, she has an ancient gravity, yet she wears her chador with a crisp chicness and her features are as fine-boned as any famished supermodel's. Leila is a living, breathing contradiction: a modern woman blurred into the most traditional of guises. The film, which was co-written and directed by Dariush Mehrjui, is about how Leila, with her own complicity, is pulled apart by the opposing forces in her life. Discovering shortly after her marriage to Reza (Ali Mosafa) that she's infertile, she falls prey to the calculations of her mother-in-law (Jamileh Sheikhi), who presses Leila to stand aside for a second wife who will bear a male heir. (Polygamy in Iran is sanctioned.) At first, Reza, who genuinely loves his wife and claims he doesn't want children, has only contempt for his mother's ministrations. But gradually, horrifyingly, he follows through with the plan. What gives the film its fascination is that Leila's participation in her mother-in-law's campaign represents more than simply a capitulation to Islamic orthodoxy. Leila, who adores her husband, believes she is being punished for her infertility and willingly conspires in her own destruction. Her demolition of her marriage draws on something deeply disturbing within her: a lust to be humiliated. She is not only aghast at what Reza has wrought; she's mortified, and captivated, by her collaboration. (No one else in either family camp condones her complicity.) The film, in its resolution, invokes "A Doll's House," which Mehrjui once adapted for the screen, and it also recalls, in a less layered and lyrical mode, Satyajit Ray's films about women and the strictures of class and tradition, particularly his Home and the World. It's a quiet heartbreaker.

Originally Published May 17, 1999

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