The Lizard

Audience award winner at this year's Fajr festival in Tehran, "The Lizard" is exemplary commercial comedy fare which shows a crack in the wall of Iranian censorship. Story of a con who breaks out of prison in priest's clothing, pic points an accusing finger at religious excesses while respecting the spirit of Islam.

With: Parviz Parastoie, Rana Azadvar, Mehran Najafi, Shahrokh Forutanian.

Audience award winner at this year’s Fajr festival in Tehran and a national hit, “The Lizard” is exemplary commercial comedy fare which shows a crack in the wall of Iranian censorship. Story of a con who breaks out of prison in priest’s clothing, pic points an accusing finger at religious excesses while respecting the spirit of Islam. Western auds should have no trouble with the message and thoroughly enjoy this curiosity item which is much more accessible than most Iranian art films if admittedly hard to place outside TV and DVD markets. It will make a fun filler item for festivals.

Reza the Lizard (Parviz Parastoie), so-called because of his remarkable ability to scale walls, is a professional burglar sentenced to life imprisonment. A tough, smart guy who talks in underworld argot, he is brought to the verge of suicide by the prison warden’s unjust punishments. The latter’s sanctimonious attitude is a mockery of the “spiritual cure” he purports to offer the inmates, echoing a generally held negative image of the mullah (priest) class in general.

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But there are good mullahs, too, and Reza happens to meet one in the infirmary. Seizing the opportunity (perhaps deliberately given) to don his priestly robes, turban, and sunglasses, Reza waltzes out the doors of the prison to freedom. The first gag is that no cabbie will pick him up, and the one who finally stops drives him in the opposite direction. Reza, however, pays him back by stealing his wallet.

Arranging to pick up a false passport, he heads for the border still dressed as a priest. A series of comic misunderstandings on the train, which are well-handled by director Kamal Tabrizi, ends with him being taken to a mosque by a group of ecstatic believers, who mistake him for a mullah they were expecting (we later learn the real one has suddenly died).

The scent of miracles is already in the air, and soon Reza is being hailed as a saint who roams about at night distributing money to the poor. In reality, he’s just trying to get hold of his passport. His misinterpreted “example” inspires the whole town to good deeds, before the evil warden gets on his trail.

Funniest set piece involves Reza trying to prevent a brute from killing his wife by scaling the wall of their house and beating the man up. Another good gag, a bit overused, has a young Islamic student posing an endless series of senseless questions about the behavior Muslims should adopt when at the North Pole or in outer space. Reza’s down-to-earth, humanitarian advice is clearly endorsed by the film, offering a respectful alternative to the stuffy codification of Islamic law.

Parastoie, unexpectedly serious in the main role, stands out in a cast of boldly drawn characters. Tech credits are basic but adequate.

The Lizard

Market / Iran

Production: (International sales: Faradis, Tehran.) Produced by Manouchehr Mohammadi. Directed by Kamal Tabrizi. Screenplay, Peiyman Ghassemkhani.

Crew: Camera (color), Hamid Khozoui-Abyaneh; editor, Hossein Zandbaf; music, Moahammad Reza Aligholi; sound, Mohammad Sammakbashi. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 16, 2004. (Also in Fajr Film Festival.) Running time: 115 MIN.

With: With: Parviz Parastoie, Rana Azadvar, Mehran Najafi, Shahrokh Forutanian.

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