From the very moment the titular character of Dariush Mehrjui’s 1996 film “Leila” finds out that she is infertile, everyone, from family to friends to doctors and specialists, has something to say about her “barren womb.” It’s immediately apparent that in Leila’s (Leila Hatami) world, decisions regarding love, marriage, and children belong to not only the woman whom the decisions affect, but also the people around her who feel they have a stake in her future.
The bitterness of this reality is portrayed subtly and often wordlessly. The film does not incorporate any soundtrack at all. Countless scenes in the film begin with Leila’s face peering out, half-hidden in shadow. She can never fully assert control over her own life, instead watching others control it. Despite a major focus on cinematography with dialogue often left in the background, “Leila” touches upon issues of tradition, religion, and women’s rights in Iran. However, this story is not fueled by politics. Rather than being a portrait of the injustices in Iranian society, the film explores the external forces that shape an individual’s personal choices.
Prior to learning that she is infertile, Leila lives a blissful life. She and future husband Reza (Ali Mosaffa) meet at a birthday party. As dictated by the rules of male-female interaction in traditional Iranian culture, their courtship is spent in the company of others, mostly at family gatherings, without truly private moments. Despite the restrictions placed on their courtship, the two are hopelessly in love and are soon able to enjoy married life together. Lead actors Hatami and Mosaffa do a beautiful job in illuminating the small, but emotionally powerful moments between the two that make up much of the film. Reza brings home stuffed animals and gifts, the couple cook meals together and eat by candlelight and in each scene the two glow with elation at being able to share their lives with one another. Hatami and Mosaffa’s sincere performance and moving interactions go beyond serving as a vehicle for Mehrjui’s larger vision of showing the role that society and culture play in people’s personal lives.
The film reaches a turning point after Leila learns that she is infertile. Due to the increased intervention of family, Leila and Reza’s previously private moments of endearment take on a new coldness. Reza’s imperious mother and three married sisters insist that Reza have children, regardless of whether or not Leila is the mother. Though it’s easy to pass off much of the sexism within Iranian society as being put in place by men, Mehrjui makes women the enforcers of traditional gender roles. It’s the personal desires and ambitions of these women, not the cultures and values of a society controlled by men, that renders Leila helpless. After enduring guilt, cajoling, and the constant insistence that it’s what Reza wants, Leila begins a painful search for a second wife for Reza. Though Reza does not particularly care whether or not he has children and does not want more than his one wife, he consents to finding one with the belief that it is what Leila wants. Their ability to make each other happy is undone by their eagerness to please each other. There are no more romantic candlelight dinners. There are now discussions of the next “candidate,” while driving along the rainy streets of Tehran. The landscapes become bleaker, the dialogue becomes increasingly sparse, and Hatami’s and Mosaffa’s voices strain with suppressed emotion. When Reza finally finds a wife that he, Leila, and his mother approve of, Leila again watches from the shadows as the procession of tearful family members makes way for the newlyweds entering her home.
“Leila” offers no solution or easy way out to satisfy all of its characters, and no big pronouncements to its audience about feminism, marriage, or society. However, without ever being heavy-handed, Mehrjui makes Leila’s struggles universal and leaves the final answers to us.