In "The Lizard," a criminal escapes from prison by dressing as a cleric, then finds himself trapped in the assumed identity. The movie is a comedy, what Hollywood would call a fish-out-of-water story, only it isn't a product of Hollywood.

It is very much a product of Iran, and Iranians went wild for it. At Tehran theaters, the lines wound around the block. Showtimes were added. "The Lizard" was on pace to set a box office record for Iran when, in mid-May, it was shut down by the real clerics who rule the country. They failed to see the humor in the movie, even if ordinary Iranians found it sidesplitting from start to finish.

"Because of the theme of the film, I assumed we would face some problems," said Kamal Mosafaye Tabrizi, the director. "But the extent was something we did not predict."

In Iran, where politics grows sterile while society ferments, the fate of "The Lizard" was instructive in itself: After a run of barely three weeks, the film disappeared into the chasm between the government and the governed.

"A bad influence," said Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the Guardian Council, the unelected body that disqualified about 2,000 reformist candidates in the last legislative elections.

"It's a comedy, what difference does it make?" said Ali Malekshahi, 52, a shirt merchant who, like many frustrated residents, missed the film in theaters but caught it on pirated videodisc. At that point, he said, he understood why the clerics closed it down: "They're afraid to be laughed at."

What audiences find so funny in "The Lizard" is a mix of broad comedy, deft satire and humorous scenes familiar to everyone in a country where a quarter-century of religious rule has left people wary of pious men wearing turbans.

When, for instance, Reza, the disguised criminal, steps onto the street outside the prison, his first challenge is hailing a cab. Taxis are plentiful in Tehran, where many ordinary motorists supplement meager incomes by picking up riders. But as Reza waves in vain from the curb, the roar of traffic passing him by is matched by the roar of the audience, which instantly recognizes the scene: Cabbies are notorious for ignoring clerics, as a passive-aggressive gesture of disapproval.

The goateed hipster who finally picks Reza up does not even take him where he wants to go, finding him useful instead as a prop to avoid a traffic ticket.

"It's part of the social facts," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who holds the post of vice president in Iran and wears the white turban of the clergy. "There's no doubt there's a majority out there in the streets who do not entirely approve of the clerics."

To judge by a videodisc of "The Lizard" -- shot surreptitiously in a Tehran theater, with the audience's reaction recorded along with the action on the screen -- it's worse than that. Clerics play the role of villain in present-day Iran, widely resented for imposing their will on the people in the name of religion while feathering their own nests.

"I'm going to send you to paradise even if I have to force you," the prison warden tells Reza early in the movie, to rolling laughter. The statement establishes the contrast point to the movie's own lesson, articulated by the clergyman whose clothes Reza swipes: "There are as many ways to God as there are people."

That respectful message -- reinforced by a serene finale, with people flocking to a long-lonely mosque -- gave Tabrizi hope that "The Lizard" would pass muster with Iran's clerical establishment. The film was, after all, approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a bastion of the reformist movement that also produced Abtahi. As an additional precaution, Tabrizi arranged screenings for several prominent clerics and their families.

"It was fantastic to see their families burst into laughter," the director said.

The problem, apparently, was its astounding success in theaters.

"Because of the number of people who were appreciating it, everybody became suspicious of the film," said Ali Afsahi, who brought a unique perspective to the feature: Before becoming a film critic, Afsahi was a cleric. He changed careers after deciding he could reach more people through film than through sermons.

"People enjoy talking to me now," he said. "I started teaching myself to talk like ordinary human beings. I stopped telling people, 'This is good, this is bad, this is a must, this is a mustn't.' "

The ban, when it came, was indirect. The Guardian Council's Jannati, who had not seen the film, pronounced it morally unsound. Showings ceased in the religiously significant city of Mashhad. Finally, the filmmakers announced that prudence dictated a discreet withdrawal.

To placate the authorities, the makers even sued in Los Angeles Superior Court to prevent the film's release in the United States. They lost, but persuaded the distributors, who are associated with an exile television station, to tone down the advertising campaign.

"The director decided he wanted to maintain his job in the future," said Mohammed Javad Larijani, a senior official in Iran's hard-line Judiciary Ministry.

The muddled outcome was typical of Iran a quarter-century after the Islamic revolution. In 1979, while imposing a severe interpretation of the Koran, the mullahs shuttered every one of Tehran's 74 movie theaters.

Today, visitors are directed to black-and-white snapshots of each of them in the Film Museum of Iran, a converted palace that honors the country's widely acclaimed directors, including those whose most famous works are banned here.

The contradictions reflect a shifting reality. After a seven-year effort at reform failed to wrest decisive power from unelected clerics, the population of 70 million has largely retreated, leaving politics to hard-liners yet withholding the legitimacy the conservatives crave.

"There are no political parties in Iran," said Hossein Ahmadi, manager of the Farhang theater, which like all reopened Iranian theaters is operated by the state. "Therefore any acts carried out by intellectuals immediately turn into political acts. This is what happened with this film."

Even the punishment reflected the changing tenor of the times.

"In the past, they banned the films first," Ahmadi noted. "Now they show them for a limited time.

"They killed the writers before. Now they put them in prison."

And the videos are freely available, reflecting the farcical quality of public life in a country where more and more people choose simply to ignore their government.

"It's mere play," the owner of a leather shop declared one recent Friday, as two dozen bored-looking young men -- sponsored by the government -- went through the motions of threatening the British Embassy, as they do each week.

Meanwhile, Tehran residents openly mocked the senior cleric who last month announced that "the missing imam," a messianic figure in Shiite Islam who has been absent for 1,063 years, had personally signed off on the last parliamentary election ballot.

"Everybody knows that they are corrupt, that they are crazy, that they are womanizers, that they are wasteful," said Ali Rashidi, an economist and reform politician. "There's nothing left of that purity you had in mind when you were talking about clergy in the historical sense."

Iranians so widely acknowledge that traditional religion has been sullied by politics that the condition forms the foundation for one conservative's criticism of "The Lizard."

"The movie was not able to demarcate between this clergy that lives with the people and the clergy who are subject to criticism," said Larijani, the Justice Ministry official, whose brother is a senior cleric who holds an appointed post high in government. "They have their driver. They have their bodyguard. They never get out there. This is the way I argue with the producer, who's a good friend of mine."

Larijani said he had not seen the film himself but was going to ask his son to bring home a video.

Iranians waited in May to buy tickets for "The Lizard," a film in which the lead character is an escaped criminal disguised as a cleric. Showings of the film were shut down later that month, but pirated videos are widely available.