Leila (1998)

I’ve marveled and praised the wonderful treasure-trove of provoking films about women from Iran. Titles such as Kandahar, Ten, The Day I Became a Woman and Women’s Prison are all smart, insightful and subversive looks at women in what is globally perceived as one of their most oppressive environments. Leila might be the crown jewel of this wealth of women-centric films. Co-written by Mahnaz Ansarian and Dariush Mehrjui, the film is an elegant balance of the internal and external pressures put upon women, or at least this particular woman: Leila (Leila Hatami of A Separation).

She’s newlywed to Reza (Ali Mosaffa), a wonderful, playful man who fills her with exuberance and joy. But the honeymoon begins to wane when times passes and Leila fails to conceive. They’re still happy with each other, but with family members dropping remarks about their future children, the societal expectation is set. And Leila discovers she is unable to conceive.

Reza and Leila consider options: medical remedies remain fruitless, adoption is briefly considered, but Leila doesn’t think it’s right for Reza to not have his own biological children, especially since he is the only son of his family. However, Reza holds that he doesn’t care about children, that he loves Leila, that they should simply live their lives and be content with what they have. Leila remains uncertain, not so much unconvinced that he doesn’t want children, but somehow that they need a child, even if it means Reza taking on a second wife.

The richness of Leila is that the conflict is not built out of animosity between characters, or even that the married couple fails to communicate properly, it’s that the two behave out of a place for love that is either misguided or skewed in such a way that they hurt each other out of an intention of love. Both feel like they have to do something, not so much to earn love but to indicate how deeply they love the other person, and yet their actions only make things worse.

Leila is one of the strongest examinations of women from Iran because it places itself within the mindset and perspective of a women through several techniques. The first is narration. While delivering information this way can often be heavy-handed, in Leila it is essential because it allows her to express thoughts that would either be socially repressed or frowned upon. It gives her a voice in a society where that voice is being stifled by pleas that Reza must have a child, no matter the cost to Leila.

Another technique is a style of shot: a woman taking directly into the camera. While this is often a technique that is avoided because it is perceived as the actor talking directly at the audience, here it is used not so much to talk at the audience but to show how direct, uncomfortable and aggressive the ideas being voiced and perpetuated by the culture are on Leila. They’re an expression of her torment.

And to solidify it all is a wonderful ending, so indelibly Iranian. Leila is a film that explores the worth of a woman, how society can place expectations that can devalue and depower women based on factors beyond their control. Yet the ending demonstrates an extraordinary and challenging resolution to this idea; One which is both complicated and subversive. Like many of Iran’s greatest films, Leila is a film that leaves the audience mulling long after the film concludes.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing