At the height of Iranian Cinema’s resurgence in the international festival circuit during the 1990s, Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila is an astonishing entry in a fecund period for modern Iran’s artistic identity. Released in 1997, the same year as Abbas Kiarostami’s Cannes-feted A Taste of Cherry and Majid Majidi’s Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven, the film was arguably overshadowed by the global success of those revered classics. Nevertheless, Mehrjui’s tale of marital strife stands apart from Asghar Farhadi’s subsequent domestic portraits in its psychic probing of culturally sanctioned shame.
Newlyweds Leila (Leila Hatami in her breakout role) and Reza (Ali Mosaffa) have their blissful reverie punctured by the devastating revelation that Leila is unable to bear children. Reza insists he is happy without an heir, yet his mother (Jamileh Sheikhi) insists otherwise, practically begging Leila with benign callousness to allow Reza to remarry. The script by Mehrjui and Mahnaz Ansarian is guided by Leila’s voiceover narration, one laced with growing anxiety as she tries convincing both herself and Reza to allow another woman to supplant her position as wife and mother.
The film constantly eschews social realism’s rigid parameters in startling moments of the camera suddenly assuming Leila’s perspective as she’s harangued by her in-laws.. Scene transitions of red and orange flashes are also redolent of Ingmar Bergman’s vivid portraits of domestic hell in Cries and Whispers. Yet the film’s study of a relationship corroded by social norms remains indicative of Mehrjui’s own allegorical presentation of communal dynamics he demonstrated in his 1969 landmark film The Cow (Gav). The social criticism of Leila never engulfs the tenderly nuanced performances from its cast, with Heitami skillfully portraying the contradictory desires of her heroine with unerring compassion.