Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the government is the sole authority to grant filmmakers permission to have a film education, licenses to make or even exhibit their work and, of course, financing. Even when they approve of films, they show an even heavier hand (with horrendous editing) when those films are shown on television.

Consequently, censorship has been an inescapable element of Iranian films for close to 25 years, as the state has continued to hold its filmmakers to a strict Islamic code. Even though those regulations have been relaxed since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture continues to confound filmmakers.

It is forbidden, for instance, for movies to show physical contact between men and women, even if those characters are married to each other. Under no circumstances may female characters take off their head scarves, even in their own homes when (in real life) they would be allowed to do so. Women should not display excessive makeup either. Or do such sinful things as burst into song.

This is the main reason so many Iranian films -- at least the ones that have been shown abroad -- feature child characters. In such films as "The White Balloon," "Bashu the Little Stranger" and "Children of Heaven," children are considered innocent and therefore able to enjoy a little more on-screen freedom.

It's fascinating to see the effects of censorship and to appreciate the inventive ways filmmakers attempt (or don't) to work around it. (Many of these issues are aired in Jamsheed Akrami's 2000 documentary "Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the 1979 Revolution.")

In the 1994 film "Once and Forever," when a woman is knocked aside by a motorist, her husband chases after the driver rather than attend to his fallen spouse. The reason: That would involve physical contact. And in the recent "Mani and Neda," filmmaker Parviz Sabri was allowed to show a man and his wife asleep in bed, but he was not permitted to let them wear pajamas. Instead, he made them wear clothes.

Most filmmakers, such as Kiarostami, avoid interior scenes, rather than show the dramatic absurdity of women dressed for the outdoors in their own homes. Makhmalbaf, whose frustrations with official censorship are well known, has shot films in Tajikistan and Afghanistan to avoid restrictions.

In some cases, a little symbolism can go a long way. The most celebrated example is in Makhmalbaf's "Gabbeh," where a husband's passion for his new wife is demonstrated by the way he fondles the horns of a goat she is milking. And in "Ten," Kiarostami cannily places his main character (a female psychiatrist) in a car, so he can depict an interior situation where a woman would wear a head scarf.

Sometimes a film is approved and made, only to be banned for distribution. Some filmmakers then resort to smuggling banned works to festivals. If those films do well, such as Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry," this forces the government into an embarrassing position. Does it agree to show the film in the country now that it's been lauded abroad? In some cases, the government has done so. This is the artist's ultimate victory because, at that point, another Iranian film has escaped the grip of the mullahs and become the cultural property of the world.

-- Desson Thomson