A poster of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar for his film "A Separation,” is seen outside a bookshop in Tehran on Feb. 28, 2012. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Iran’s acclaimed movie industry is the latest sector to suffer the effects of economic sanctions over the country’s uranium-enrichment program. But as filmmakers warn that they might pause production because of lagging funds, two controversial new releases are breathing life into the domestic cinema scene.

At the close of a year in which increased ticket prices caused a 40 percent drop in cinema attendance, the movies “Facing Mirrors” and “I Am a Mother” are creating a spike in sales at the box office. And their provocative protagonists — a transsexual in the first, and nouveau riche characters who drink alcohol and adopt other taboo behaviors in the second — are driving a wider debate on cinema in the Islamic republic.

“I Am a Mother” has caused particular uproar, prompting protests by conservative religious groups and an attempted ban by Iran’s Academy of Arts, a division of the Islamic Development Organization, which owns more than one-third of Iranian movie theaters. But in what some observers say is a demonstration of an official loosening of cultural restrictions in response to public frustration over a shortage of entertainment, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance allowed its production and release.

Amid the debate, Mohammad Hosseini, the Islamic culture and guidance minister, has explained that decision differently, saying: “In order to show how some un-Islamic lifestyles lead to a dead end, the filmmaker must depict their behavior and improper relationships. . . . Society should show a little tolerance.”

Whatever the reason for that movie’s official approval, the two new releases have given a pick-me-up to a struggling industry. In February, Iranians were celebrating film director Asghar Farhadi’s capture of the country’s first Oscar — his “A Separation” won for best foreign language film — but the Iranian cinema owners association was warning by November that shrinking attendance might force its members to close their theaters unless government assistance was forthcoming. Ticket prices have more than doubled to about $1.75 since 2009, and film production costs have increased amid a teetering economy.

Ticket-sales record

But last month “I Am a Mother” broke Tehran’s single-day ticket-sales record, which was previously held by “A Separation.” Currently it is No. 1 at Iranian box offices, and “Facing Mirrors” is fourth, despite being screened at only three theaters in Iran.

“These movies have had great attendance, showing again that our people have their own logic,” the producers and directors of “I Am a Mother” and five other films wrote last week in a defiant letter, published by several newspapers, responding to attempted bans by the arts academy. “The tremendous sale of these movies in the last two months is a strong response to your baseless accusations that such movies are ‘immoral’ and ‘against values.’ Now these . . . movies have given a new life to Iranian cinemas.”

“I Am a Mother” tells the story of a young woman who kills a family friend after he rapes her. The rapist’s family calls for the woman’s execution under an Islamic law known as qisas, which allows for the heirs of a slain person to decide the fate of the convicted killer. Debate about the film, however, has centered on the characters’ relatively liberal lifestyles — female characters, for example, appear without head scarves.

“Facing Mirrors” follows a female-to-male transsexual who is picked up by a female taxi driver who is trying to earn money to pay for her husband’s release from debtors’ prison. Adineh, the transsexual, has run away from home because her father has arranged a marriage for her, believing that the union will solve the family’s “curse.”

The success of the films — and their subjects — has buoyed some Iranian filmgoers.

“I almost cried,” Mahsa,
a 24-year-old male-to-female transsexual who declined to give a full name, said after seeing “Facing Mirrors.” “It can help parents understand that there are other kids that have these issues besides their own. I hope my parents go see it, too.”

Keeping a low profile

Mohammed Reza, a film buff who works at a construction company in Tehran, said the new movies signal a trend of greater leeway from Iran’s moral authorities.

“Iranian cinema is getting less restricted in terms of stories and subjects,” said Reza, 28. “Not because some officials want to loosen their restriction, but because directors, writers and the audience are demanding it, and the officials can no longer stick to their stricter fundamentals.”

But in spite of slightly greater freedoms, filmmakers in Iran still tend to maintain low profiles, and attempts to reach the two films’ producers and directors were unsuccessful. Several Iranian filmmakers have been imprisoned in recent years for association with foreign media and cultural organizations. Hojatoleslam Ghafouri, an influential cleric, recently told reporters he believed that the filmmakers behind “I Am a Mother” should be disciplined.

“I am among those who know the content of the movie and think that the protesters’ demand to stop the movie is correct,” Ghafouri said, referring to public demonstrations against the film. “Those who are accused because of this movie must be summoned to the court immediately and answer to the public.”

Speaking at a recent news conference, Mohammad Bagheri, a cleric and a member of parliament’s cultural commission, disagreed.

“They have to let the authorities do their job,” he said. “Like any other movie, there are some points to criticize in ‘I Am a Mother,’ but simply because of these points we cannot stop showing it.”