A Wife Trapped in Tradition's Painful Grasp - "Leila" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

The calculating monster who pulls the strings in Dariush Mehrjui's heartbreaking film, "Leila," is an imperious mother-in-law (Jamileh Sheikhi) whose selfishness and pride put her in the same elite league with some of Hollywood's most formidable gorgons. On learning that her daughter-in-law is infertile, this termagant who is obsessed with having a male grandchild to carry on the family line systematically undermines the marriage of her only son, Reza (Ali Mosafa). For the Iranian filmmaker, the situation illustrates the brutal clash between modernity and Islamic tradition in contemporary Iran. The movie, which has screenings tomorrow and Monday, is one of the most gripping and beautifully acted selections in this year's New Directors/New Films series.

The world in which Reza and Leila live luxuriously is a land of superhighways, cellular phones and modern biotechnology. But it is also a place where women dress in black and wear chadors much of the time and where polygamy is an accepted tradition.

As the movie opens, the recently married lovers are celebrating Leila's birthday with lavish gift-giving and fancy parties. Although they seem to have everything -- wealth, youth, beauty and large adoring families -- on the same day Leila learns that she is probably infertile. Although Reza swears he doesn't want children, Leila instantly decides she has failed her husband. And when her mother-in-law begins browbeating her to allow Reza to take a second wife who might bear him a son, Leila's self-esteem crumbles before her relentless onslaught.

The campaign waged by this horribly believable matriarch takes many forms and never lets up. There are incessant haranguing phone calls and sudden unannounced visits in which the mother-in-law vacillates between sugarcoated wheedling and dire warning. She instills paranoia in Leila by insisting her son has told others he really does want children desperately, and she enlists her relatives in a search for suitable candidates to audition for the role of second wife. As Leila's fragile self-worth evaporates, she becomes depressed and withdrawn and continually tests the devotion of her dashing husband, who can't really comprehend what she is going through. Leila's father-in-law is sympathetic to Leila but powerless to soften his wife's stand.

It is Leila herself who persuades the reluctant and increasingly frustrated Reza to meet with various young women. Some of the movie's most upsetting scenes find her waiting alone on the street for him to return from these meetings, in which hardheaded negotiation plays a major part. When Reza finally meets someone he finds satisfactory, he drives by the corner where Leila is waiting so she can get a glimpse of the young woman.

Leila's despair reaches a howling peak on the night Reza arrives with his new wife for the wedding party at the house where Leila has been exiled to a guest room. Unable to bear the pain, she rushes to her parents' house and collapses in tears.

Without being simplistic, the film suggests that in Iran, contemporary attitudes toward love and marriage and modern psychology are no match for the combined force of social pressure and Islamic tradition when ruthlessly appropriated as weapons of intimidation. "Leila" is, in a word, devastating.

Originally Published March 28, 1998

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