Film: Costume Psychodramas

Is she or isn't she? That is the question stalking Meryl Streep's portrayal of a power-mad senator in The Manchurian Candidate. Is the actress pulling a Hillary or what? In June, Matt Drudge fanned the rumors prior to the film's release, linking to a blogger who claimed that Paramount Pictures had found Streep's “brilliantly scary and evil” rendering of her character too close to Clinton for comfort. As a result, claimed the blogger, the studio had asked director Jonathan Demme to re-edit the film to remove the “more Hillary-esque gestures.”

Streep has repeatedly denied that she based her fictional Eleanor Prentiss Shaw on real-life New York Senator Clinton. The true inspiration? The actress watched hours of political talk shows, “anything with Peggy Noonan, Karen Hughes,” she told Entertainment Weekly in April. She also noted that “jewelry is very important as well.” (Shaw constantly fiddles with Barbara Bush–esque pearls as she bulldozes her hapless son into political power.)

The hullabaloo over Streep's character is certainly in keeping with the ever-more-partisan cultural climate of this wartime election year. With the rise of lefty documentaries and FOX News' right-wing shouting heads, it's hardly surprising that audiences and the media are mining movies for nuggets of real politics. And in this case, they might be right to look.

The original Manchurian Candidate worked hard to keep its artistic distance intact. Based on a Richard Condon novel and directed by John Frankenheimer, the 1962 classic came out during the Cuban missile crisis, when memories of Red scares and McCarthyism were still fragrant. While Frankenheimer's film played out the conceit that China and the Soviet Union had brainwashed a Korean War vet into becoming a programmable assassin, it still managed to lampoon both sides of the political spectrum.

While smart and stylish, Demme's version labors under today's partisan imperatives. His villains are members of a shadowy corporate cabal (the Carlyle Group or Halliburton, perhaps?), intent on using a vice president (Mr. Cheney, anyone?) to enact their nefarious schemes, which include fomenting an endless fear of terrorism, wreaking havoc on far-off countries to serve business goals, and wielding the gene-warping activities of big science against that ultimate civil liberty, free will. (Footnote: Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Corporation.) All these allusions are clear in the film, which panders to a sort of aha-ism, dinging the audience with real-life references like touchscreen voting and a hired gun who turns on his former benefactor, the United States.

Not everything in the updated Candidate is that heavy-handed, though. Demme subtly captures our diffuse yet omnipresent contemporary mechanisms of top-down control. Using news crawls and television voice-overs, he depicts how the government could use an ever-present sense of terrorist menace and global mayhem to convince Americans of the need to compromise democracy in favor of security. In one tidy moment, Demme shows our hero, a war veteran determined to make sense of the shards of a Gulf War story (Denzel Washington, skillfully and twitchily reprising a similar role he played in Courage Under Fire), watching video cameras watching him.

The film works hard at entertaining us, and largely succeeds. But it has also lost something with its brisk one-sidedness -- the original's brimstone whiff of nihilism, its riveting strangeness and disorienting dream sequences. Demme's Candidate is a slick knockoff of real life that aims for a knowing smirk or an easily forgettable shudder, rather than the original's psychosexual-political trawl through the deep, where no one (and no party) was sacred.

Demme's version is gorier; so are the performances. Angela Lansbury's brilliant turn as the vagina-dentata mother figure in the original has been replaced by Streep's hammy performance. At the screening I attended, a regular hootenanny broke out every time Streep appeared, chewing on ice cubes and scenery in equal measure, dressed in obscene bridal white as she danced with her robot-politician son. The laughter was part admiration, part bafflement: Is she trying for camp? And is that Hillary under there?

Viewers who identify as aesthetic libertarians -- those who don't want art to tell them what to think, or anyone to tell them what to think about art -- won't want to know. Too late. Everyone's busy playing connect the dots, in real life and on screen, and it will be awhile yet until film frees itself from doctrinaire overtones and cedes message to the realm of imagination. There's a war on -- in Iraq, in our election, and for the hearts and minds of every viewer. You'll just have to wait it out.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was furious. As head of Iran's powerful Guardian Council -- and one of the “unelected few” President Bush attacked for preventing reform in Iran -- he had heard one anecdote too many about the smash-hit movie Marmoulak (Lizard). A yarn about a runaway thief who disguises himself as a mullah, the film satirizes the hypocrisy and corruption of the clerical establishment and was, Jannati said, spreading “social corruption.” Crowds of young men, upon seeing a turbaned mullah on the street, were shrieking, “Marmoulak!” before running away screaming with laughter. “It is a hideous film,” Jannati said in May. “I have not seen it, but according to what I was told, it has many bad teachings and should be banned.”

Jannati's judgment on a film that he hadn't seen is typical for the Iranian regime. After all, the chief film censor until 1994 was nearly blind -- a perfect real-life expression, according to Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, of a “totalitarian mind-set” that tries to reshape reality and confine individuals to its limited vision of the world. Enter Marmoulak, the popularity of which had become a threat. Before it was banned in May, the film took the top prize at Iran's international film festival, raked in more than $1 million, and had audiences thronging to extra late-night screenings. With its U.S. release this summer, Marmoulak has become the highest grossing Iranian film of all time.

Director Kamal Tabrizi's movie is deceptively simple, a sort of Persian Sister Act with little of the poetic lugubriousness generally associated with Iranian cinema. Instead, the film crackles with the wily energy of its main character, who has earned his reptilian moniker for his ability to scale walls and slither out of almost every sticky situation.

“Almost” is the operative word. When the film opens, Reza Marmoulak (the wonderful Parvis Parastui) has just been jailed for robbery. But the lifelong criminal and unbeliever sees a way out: He swipes the clothes of a kindly prison cleric and goes on the lam. Or tries to. In a funny scene that conveys Iranians' growing disenchantment with the powerful clerical class, Marmoulak flaps around in his robes and howls, “Damn your soul!” at the stream of taxis that refuse to stop for a mullah.

At first, Marmoulak engages in plenty of impious behavior -- leering, wet-eyed, at young ladies, whispering “sssssou sssssou” to cover up the fact that he doesn't know his prayers. But after he becomes the mullah of a village mosque, he starts believing his own sermons, which revolve around a phrase uttered by the prison's mullah moments before Marmoulak pilfered his robes: “There are as many ways to reach God as there are people.” More and more followers cram into the once-abandoned mosque to hear their mulllah's hilarious yet resonant rambles: He decries the top-down imposition of belief, challenges notions that Islam is only for the learned or the purely good, and advocates for the doing of good deeds over the policing of minute aspects of individuals' behavior. And with this, Marmoulak suggests the possibility of a people's Islam that is more responsive to, and reflective of, its followers, a religion that isn't willfully blind to how Iranians may interpret their faith and imagine themselves.

That, of course, isn't the predominant Islam in Iran today, as the fact of the film's banning makes clear. And things seem to be getting worse. Seven years ago, the newly elected President Mohammed Khatami offered the promise of reform, and millions of Iranians embraced that hope. But this year, droves of disillusioned voters, disappointed both by Khatami's inability to stand up to the country's conservatives and by the slow pace of reform, skipped February's parliamentary election. Conservatives swept the polls, began tightening their control, and continued locking horns with the United States over Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But all hope is not lost for internal democratic evolution in Iran. How else to explain the popularity of a movie that offers up a radical image of self-salvation to its Iranian audience, people who have been failed by countless political messiahs and foreign interlopers throughout their history?

Marmoulak ends on the birthday of the last Imam Mahdi, a savior whose return is eagerly awaited by Iran's Shia believers. Marmoulak's adopted village is strewn with lights; his followers are waiting in their mosque. Tabrizi takes his audience into the scene in a masterful point-of-view shot: One by one the worshippers turn around and look directly into the camera as it advances through the mosque. Who is walking in? Whom are they looking at so expectantly? Their mock mullah, the sinner turned salt-of-the-earth saint? Imam Mahdi himself? The audience? Or perhaps some version of all three -- regular Iranians like themselves who, the film seems to say, also have the power to understand God, and to make their world a closer reflection of the heaven they imagine.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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