First Published: 2004-05-06

'Marmoulak' overshadows 'Passion of the Christ' In Iran

Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" takes back row to Iranian film that has taken Islamic republic by storm.


Middle East Online

By Farhad Pouladi - TEHRAN

'Passion of the Christ' is only showing at a single cinema in Iran

When Mel Gibson's blockbuster film "The Passion of the Christ" opened in Tehran, Jesus ended up in a supporting role and the Thief took center stage in a strange twist to the Gospel story.

This thief was not one of the two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus, depicted in graphic detail by Gibson, but a petty criminal nicknamed "The Lizard" in a completely different film that has taken Iran by storm.

Gibson stands to make a fortune on his controversial story about the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, but the takings at the opening night of "The Passion" at Tehran's upscale Farhang Cinema would hardly cover costs.

It seems as if just about everyone who showed up only did so because they couldn't get tickets next door to see "The Lizard," the story of a thief-turned-mullah, or Shiite Muslim cleric.

"Marmoulak," as it is known in Persian, is a raging success in Iran. In the few weeks since its premiere, after fears the censors would can it, the film has broken box office records, with some 500,000 people having seen it.

Even so, it isn't safe yet.

Just this week, a top hardline cleric demanded that the film be banned, even though he had not even seen it.

Daily newspaper Shargh reported Wednesday that Aytatollah Ahmad Janati, head of Iran's powerful Guardians Council, said: "It is a hideous film. I have not seen it, but according to what I was told it has many bad teachings and it should be banned.

Marmoulak, awarded the prize from the public at the Tehran international film festival in February, is the story of Reza (the Lizard), who got caught one time too many and is sentenced to life in jail.

Injured in a prison brawl ahd hospitalized, Reza takes the chance to change his identity by nicking a cleric's robe and turban and slipping out undetected. Quickly realizing the benefits of being a mullah in the holy city of Masshad, he decides to carry on with the charade.

He preaches in the prisons and even at weekly prayers on Fridays, the main day of worship for Muslims, to crowds captured by his goodness and simplicity.

Little by little, and against his grain, Reza becomes not only a man who his respected, but one who respects the principles of religion.

But if the story's charm were not enough to limit Gibson's takings here, other factors certainly could.

It was only some two weeks ago that Iran's ministry of culture and Islamic guidance approved screening of "The Passion" in a rare green light for a US-made movie.

But having got the go-ahead, the film is only showing at a single cinema in the entire country, the Farhang, and at the less-than-attractive hour of 10 pm.

Moreover, the Wednesday premiere was only announced the same day, in a brief press release. So unless someone passed by the cinema and saw the posters, announcing that "The Passion" was banned to under-17s, they could miss it.

One who didn't was a mother, dressed in the head-to-foot chador, or cloak, that is ubiquitous in Iran, who brought her family along.

She said she was curious about the final hours of Jesus, who is revered as a prophet by Muslims.

She said the film certainly "must be true because the Jews are furious."

One of the things that has made the film so controversial are claims by some that "The Passion" could arouse anti-Jewish sentiment.

That may have been on the mind of Maryam, a student, who said she was curious to why the film had "caused such an uproar in Europe and the United States."

Reza, a teacher in his forties, said he came along to see if the film was better than Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ."

He didn't say which he preferred, but noted that Gibson's film was "very unfavorable to the Jews," whose State of Israel is anathema to Iran's Islamic republic.

In the end, only around 250 people gathered in the 380-seat Farhang.

Manager Seyed Hossein Ahmadi is cautious about the future of the film, saying he might add a showing if there's a call for it.


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