By Dennis Harvey
SAN FRANCISCO (Variety) May 8 - A do-gooder whose deeds invariably most benefit herself -- until she pushes her luck too far -- the protagonist in veteran Iranian helmer Mehdi Sabaghzadeh's ``Maral'' is a domestic schemer akin to Balzac's Cousin Bette and Joan Crawford's Harriet Craig.
While limited in offshore appeal by underlying gender politics that may puzzle Western audiences, this well-crafted tale of religious and moral hypocrisy should travel nicely on fest circuits.
Well-off Tehranians Haji (Faramarz Sedighi) and Rezvan (Soraya Ghasemi) live together more like siblings than spouses; he's long since settled into a mode of passive resistance toward her pious henpecking, while she channels leftover energy into charitable causes.
``Do you do these things for the sake of God, or to show off?'' he asks early on. Not content merely raising funds for victims of a recent earthquake, Rezvan concocts a plan that would make her the indisputable local queen of philanthropy: Haji is to legally take some particularly miserable, family-orphaned woman from the disaster region as his temporary wife, while Rezvan finds her a permanent home and real husband.
At first appalled, Haji reluctantly consents. His attitude changes, however, when this newly arrived poor unfortunate turns out to be young Maral (Hadis Fouladvand), whose beauty awakens a response more lustful than piteous.
Suddenly frantic to get rid of the guest she now perceives as a rival -- though demure Maral is no less mortified by this father figure's obvious nonpaternal interest -- Rezvan tries to preserve her marriage by suggesting Maral already carries a late fiance's child. But that white lie quickly brings dire consequences for all three characters.
For non-Moslem viewers, filmmaker's lack of interest in explaining the intricacies of temporary marriage, potential polygamy and Islamic fundamentalist beliefs could make narrative seem baffling or archaic at times. Likewise, Maral's complete helplessness to control her fate (or even inform others of her plight), plus a moral brunt that falls much more heavily on Rezvan than Haji, may strike some Western audiences as bizarre.
Nonetheless, by Iranian standards ``Maral'' is a pretty frank drama about sex, despite customary avoidance of male-female touch, unveiled women, etc. (Feature's home-turf release will be in censored form, presumably trimming moments when those strictures are teasingly near-violated.)
Excellent cast applies judicious restraint to potentially melodramatic situations, led by Ghasemi's outstanding turn. Though lacking the aesthetic poetry of recent breakout Iran titles, pic is crisply paced and mounted by Sabaghzadeh (``The Immigrants,'' ``The Quiet Home''). Only design debit is somewhat tacky synth-based score.
Maral (Drama, Iran, color, no rating, 1:36) with: Faramarz Sedighi, Soraya Ghasemi, Hadis Fouladvand, Majid Hajizadeh, Mahtaj Nojoumi.