Iranian film: Mama's Guest (2004)

Mama’s Guests (Dariush Mehrjui, 2004) is a comedy of manners, about a poor Iranian family who feels obliged to offer a big expensive banquet for their two relatives, a young couple, just married.

The film starts with the arrival of the father of the family, carrying just a watermelon and some bread with him on his motorcycle. After many sidelines and troubles they naturally ended with a enormous quantity of food, so at the end it is possible to have a festive banquet for everybody in their neighbourhood.
The film is located in an old house somewhere in Tehran, where several neighbours share the same backyard. So we get to see a whole range of types, like a fussy old lady, a free wheeling drug addict, and a fake medicine student.
The actor who played the father dominated many scenes, as a jovial storyteller. His character has to entertain the guests who are waiting a long time for their meal, so he starts to retell enthusiastically some scenes of the movie LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

In my opinion there are some minor flaws in the movie. In the beginning, for example, a handheld camera is used, maybe to create a modern look and possibly to create a start with an upbeat rhythm, but for me the handheld camera is quite unnecessary.
The same goes for the episode in the hospital at the end (the mother faints because of all the stress). This episode is an unnecessary detour. It would be better if the film stayed in the enclosed world of the backyard, because that’s the stage which is set for the whole story.
Dariush Mehrjui is a gifted director, who made strong dramatic films like LEILA (1997) and many others. He started his career way back in the sixties, as part of the Iranian New Wave. His most classic film is THE COW (1969), which was shown worldwide at film festivals (also in the early days of the International Film Festival Rotterdam).

It is interesting to compare MAMA’S GUEST with his early comedy MR. HALLOO (also known as MR. NAIV 1970), which was also a box office hit at the time. This film also has a small story line, about a provincial man who travels to the big city to search for a bride. He gets involved in all sorts of shady business and is courting a woman who is a prostitute. MR HALLOO is a tender and fascinating film, thanks to the talent of the leading actor (Ali Nassirian) who balances masterfully between irony and sincerity. Sadly enough, he is now appearing in several indifferent television soaps.
MAMA’S GUESTS was released in Iran in the Summer of 2004 and it was a box-office hit. In august 2004 it had grossed 150.000 euro in Teheran and 100.000 euro in other Iranian cities.

To compare: the other successful comedy of 2004 was MARMOOLAK (THE LIZARD (Kamal Tabrizi, 2004).
The film was presented at the 22th Fajr International Film Festival in February 2004 and released in the Iranian cinemas. In 25 days it proofed to be a top box office hit: it grosses around 780.000 euro in Teheran and around 300.000 euro in other Iranian cities (this information was given in the Iranian film magazine Picture World). Suddenly, THE LIZARD was banned after 25 days of release. Several English and Dutch newspapers did write about this strange decision. Naturally, the film was widely available on illegal VCD, and a few years later the film was international available on dvd.
THE LIZARD is a very well-made comedy about a desperate criminal who manage to escape from cruel prison, dressed up as a mullah. He gets on a train and tries to cross the border, but he fails in his attempts. The people of the small border village think he is really their long expected new mullah. So he is obliged to lead them in prayers and to give sermons. The criminal is played by Parviz Parastui, a very gifted actor. His character preaches a new kind of religious simplicity, which is both hilarious and liberating.
For me THE LIZARD is a comedy with a rather innocent humour. The mullahs are being mocked, but mostly in a mild manner. The film ends in a glorious happy end, all sinners are weeping of remorse and all bigots have learned to loosen up. So what’s the problem for the censors?

By the way: the story of THE LIZARD can be seen as a variation on the popular theme of criminals dressing up as clergyman or priests, like in the old western with Anthony Quinn (LA BATAILLE DE SAN SEBASTIAN, Henri Verneuil, 1968).

See also: Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad, ‘The Lizzard’, in: ibidem, The Politics of Iranian Cinema: Film and Society in the Islamic Republic, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 90-100.