Though sometimes mentioned as the third in the triumvirate of great modern Iranian directors that includes Abbas Kiarostami and Moshen Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui predates and influences both. Educated at U.C.L.A., Mehrjui began studying film but, dispirited by uninspiring teachers and a lack of attention to the then-current New Wave directors he admired, he switched to philosophy. Returning to Iran in 1965, he almost immediately embarked on a filmmaking career.
Though Mehrjui claims Vittorio DeSica's The Bicycle Thief as the film that made him want to become a director (and his later films bear this out), Mehrjui's first effort, Diamond 33 (1965), was of all things a spoof of James Bond films. Disappointed with its failure, Mehrjui made his reputation with his next film, 1970's Gaav (The Cow), an adaptation of a work by popular playwright Gholam-Hossein Saedi in which an impoverished village is thrown into chaos after losing its only cow. Though the film encountered problems with government censors, it eventually played to great acclaim at foreign festivals and helped spark the Iranian New Wave of the early '70s. With Mr. Naive (1970), Mehrjui contrasted country ways with those of the city, while Postman (1971) reworked Georg Büchner's Woyzeck. As with Gaav, poverty -- urban rather than rural -- served as the subject of Mehrjui's The Cycle, his last film before the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini into power. A supporter of the revolution, Mehrjui also helped ensure the revival of Iranian film thanks to the Ayatollah's admiration of Gaav.
After traveling to France and filming a tribute to Arthur Rimbaud, Mehrjui returned to Iran to film The Tenants (1987), a comedy of conflict between apartment tenants and a realtor seeking to throw them out. In the '90s, Mehrjui began to shift his attention to stories dealing with the educated, upper-middle class he inhabited. Hamoon (1990) and The Pear Tree (1998) both deal with the travails of cultured intellectuals in an Iran begun to be overrun by the West.
The '90s also found Mehrjui releasing films dealing with women's issues. Banoo more or less brought Luis Buñuel's Viridiana to Iran. Sara did the same for Ibsen's A Doll's House. Pari, a transplanting of Salinger's Franny and Zooey, attracted the attention -- and the threat of a lawsuit -- from the reclusive author. Leila was all Mehrjui's own and the first to receive any sort of wide theatrical release in the West. The story of a marriage undone by infertility and a meddling mother-in-law, it earned Mehrjui raves. Outside of festivals and a career-spanning retrospective by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in late 1998, his films remain largely unseen outside Iran, an oversight that will hopefully be corrected with the passing of time.