As Iranian filmmakers know, it takes the cinematic equivalent of tightrope walking to make movies that satisfy both artistic integrity and the mullahs.
Something, however, seems to be working. In recent years, post-revolutionary Iran has become a wellspring of movies that overflow with sensual imagery, complex humanitarian issues and cannily veiled political allegory.
Filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi (here recently to promote his film "Baran") are laying claim to the kind of cinematic poetry that used to be associated only with European and Japanese directors, such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Francois Truffaut.
Majidi's films, including "The Father," "Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Paradise," have won prizes in festivals around the world, including Montreal, San Sebastian, Turin and the Los Angeles International Film Festival. In 1999 "Children of Heaven" became the first Iranian film to be nominated in the Academy Awards' foreign-language category. "Children" and "Paradise" have enjoyed considerable critical praise, and performed particularly well in Washington, which has a substantial enclave of Iranian immigrants and political exiles.
Box office for an Iranian art house film is hardly going to make James Cameron look over his shoulder. "The Color of Paradise" and Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar" (which holds the house box office record at Visions Cinema in Washington) are the most successful in America, at just under $2 million and $1.5 million, respectively. (For comparison, "The Scorpion King," starring the Rock, opened last weekend with a $36.2 million haul.) But critical acclaim in the States has been largely positive.
Iranian films have become an almost ubiquitous and increasingly winning presence at the premier international film festivals. Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" took the prestigious Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. And Panahi's "The Circle" won the top Golden Lion award at Venice in 2000.
Kiarostami has high hopes for Cannes again. His "Ten" has just been accepted in the competitive section at the French festival, which starts later this month.
When Iran's political relations with the United States couldn't be more contentious, these films send an unmistakably ironic message. Despite being dubbed a member of of George W. Bush's Axis of Evil, the country is making movies (approved and regulated by the government) that touch world audiences on entirely humanitarian terms.
But these films are made despite a government that exercises control over the artists' film stock and equipment, their choices of cast and crew and, most significantly, the content of their work.
Such government bodies as Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance monitor film scripts for potentially anti-religious content.
Regulations forbid such things as physical contact between men and women -- even if the characters are husband and wife. Female characters cannot remove their head scarves under any circumstances, even inside their own homes.
Even when movies are approved by Iran, there are no guarantees they'll be shown there. Despite its international success, Panahi's "The Circle," which makes a harsh assessment about the social lives of Iranian women, has never been shown in Iran. And when films make it to television, the censors are even stricter.
In Jamsheed Akrami's 2000 documentary "Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution," Makhmalbaf complains that his 1987 movie "The Cyclist" was shown on Iranian television, but was edited into virtual incomprehensibility by television censors. The broadcast included an interview with a film critic who declared the film made no sense.
"First they cut the film into pieces and then got into a discussion of how it was meaningless," says Makhmalbaf, an anti-shah activist before the revolution, who has shot films in Tadzhikistan and Afghanistan to avoid government restrictions. "I can't take it anymore. This senseless censorship is intolerable."
The trick, filmmakers say, is to make movies that circumvent the restrictions and retain the original vision. Majidi, considered very pro-establishmemt by his peers, seems to have found his way.
"It's hard for me to explain" this success, says Majidi, with filmmaker-professor Akrami serving as his English translator. "But I can tell you I've never looked upon filmmaking as a profession. I've always looked at it as something that's the basis of my life. That's why I have never done movies others have wanted me to do. . . .
"I tend to live with my films and the kind of subjects I do. They come from me and they come from my experiences. And I feel so intimate and close to them. I'm doing something I have always wanted to do. And maybe my dedication to my films has something to do with my success."
"Baran," which tells of the tough circumstances faced by Afghans who work illegally in Iran, is about an Iranian boy who loses his comfortable job (bringing tea to construction workers) to an Afghan of the same age. Hostile at first, the Iranian gets to know his replacement and changes his attitude completely. It's a very human story, which deliberately throws two individuals together from different walks of life.
As with many Iranian films, the movie makes eloquence out of simplicity and a budget that wouldn't pay for the catering in a Hollywood production. Most of the actors were nonprofessional. And many of the scenes were shot in long, uninterrupted takes -- another concession to time and money. Majidi also filmed the scenes sequentially, without telling his cast what would happen next. The result: an authentic, touching realism with utterly believable characters.
But even though "Baran" was approved in its home country, the director still had to contend with the usual strictures. When the plot calls for a young woman to reveal her hair, for instance, Majidi shows her in silhouette.
The silhouette shot is just one of many ways Iranian filmmakers deal with censorship. "Friendly Persuasion," which aired recently on the Sundance Channel, details the ways filmmakers negotiate the delicate line between artistic statement and compromise.
In the 1994 film "Once and Forever," a married couple are walking next to a highway when a motorist hits the wife. Rather than helping his fallen wife -- which would involve physical contact between the sexes -- the husband vents his rage at the driver. He doesn't touch her at all.
Most filmmakers avoid interior scenes, rather than show the dramatic absurdity of women wearing scarves in the privacy of their own homes. And as for expressions of affection or erotic ardor, characters have to reach for symbolism rather than each other.
In Makhmalbaf's "Gabbeh," the erotic relationship between a husband and his new wife is demonstrated in a canny way. The man verbalizes his passion for his wife as he fondles the horns of a goat she is milking.
Until the movie "Ten," Kiarostami avoided female characters altogether. His new movie is set almost entirely inside a car where a female psychiatrist meets her female clients. Thus, women can be shown in an interior situation where they would normally wear head scarves. It's a subtle touch but, to the initiated, it speaks volumes.
"To me, in the face of all those restrictions and censorship codes, the fact they still manage to make movies that are so creative, that have made the entire world admire them, is nothing short of a miracle," says Akrami, an American-based filmmaker and professor originally from Iran.
Another route for filmmakers is to make movies about children. The reason: Young characters can get away with what is seen as youthful spontaneity. And in many cases, all kinds of allusive allegory is possible. Although films about children constitute only about 10 to 15 percent of the national output (about 70 films are made a year in all), the world has come to associate Iranian cinema with such child-centered works as "The White Balloon" and "Children of Heaven."
Panahi's 1995 "White Balloon" is about a little girl who ventures into town -- full of street vendors and intimidating adults -- to purchase a goldfish. When someone takes her money from her, is this a statement about Iran's political innocence being stolen? Or is it just about a girl and her goldfish? Subtlety is Panahi's only protection.
"Some filmmakers would even credit the restrictions as a source of creativity," says Akrami, "because you can't do things a certain way -- and you have to look for alternative ways of doing that."
If the government is an unwitting conspirator in the national cinema, there are no signs of celebration. The works of Kiarostami and prominent others are pejoratively referred to as "festival films." And such critical successes as Kiarostami's "The Wind Will Carry Us" and Babak Payami's "The Secret Ballot," which won the direction award at Venice, simply haven't been shown in Iran, according to Akrami.
Majidi's "Color of Paradise" was shown only in one art house. And when Kiarostami won the Golden Palm at Cannes, he drew more attention in the Iranian press for kissing presenter Catherine Deneuve on the cheeks.
Says Akrami, referring to the Kiarostami debacle: "What got lost is this huge honor. Even till today, [his Cannes prize] is the most shining moment in Iranian cinema. But it got lost in the scandal of the kiss."
Makhmalbaf, an enthusiastic fan of Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian filmmaker who made powerful, personal movies despite open hostility from the Soviet regime, may have offered the ultimate word. In "Friendly Persuasion," he says: "Every film survives its censors. Tarkovsky's films are still here. But the Soviet Union is gone."