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Leila’s brothers and a victimized generation

Saeed Roustayi’s creation, for better or worse, is a reflection of its time. More specifically, not only of its time but of an entire generation that finds itself in a world it doesn’t understand what’s wrong and has grown enough to have the right, the obligation, but also the privilege to express itself within society, in every society around the globe, through art. This is a victimized generation, which utilizes this characteristic in every expression, certainly not a generation of heroes, as it does not propose change, but instead opposes a reactionary storm that has been sweeping through its growth for decades.

There are places in the world where the regressive steamroller is somewhat more relentless – if one were to use such a “polished” expression – compared to others. One such place is Iran, at least if one follows the political and social developments of the last decades, especially in comparison with Western Europe and generally the so-called global north. Iran is the magnification of the reaction, as it includes in absolute exaggeration the elements of regression that are trying to develop even in Western societies. Religious fundamentalism is official state power, political power is shared by theocratic councils, women’s rights do not allow even the freedom of dress, while patriarchy exists in institutional forms that are considered by members of society as cultural foundations.

These issues preoccupy Iranian cinema, which has provided some of the sharpest expressions of societal critique, in many cases over the last few years, developing within an exceptionally hostile environment. Not just hostile in terms of the mob, but with clear and direct censorship, with prosecutions and imprisonments of creators, among whom is Roustayi, for the movie “Leila and Her Brothers”, which seemed not to comply with the guidelines for maintaining good morals and proper representation of the Islamic state.

Beyond this general climate, however, Iran in recent years has been marked, once again, by the outbreak of protests that are massive in scale and combativeness, centered on women’s emancipation and the breaking of the extremely tight framework of theocracy and patriarchy (or theocratic patriarchy), a struggle that has claimed many victims and naturally, a struggle that elicits admiration, respect, and support from every progressive person on the planet.

In this context, an Iranian movie from 2022 that focuses on the devastating consequences of patriarchy not only for women’s freedom but also for the prosperity of an entire people, as it hinders their progress, is a bold move that deserves the audience’s respect, as well as their interest. Especially considering that it was created by a director from the millennial generation, who is currently engaged in these specific struggles and counting its victims. Additionally, the fact that this movie uses images that can shock an entire society (like the scene where a daughter slaps her elderly father who “mortgaged” a family’s life for his patriarchal honor), which can be described as monuments or at least reference points, gives it significant value and is a tremendous achievement. Considering that at the same time, many recognized European creators prefer to critique the 19th century (for example, Marco Bellocchio last year), this artistic expression in Iran also deserves our admiration.

Beyond the historical and social context in which the film emerges and develops, if the analysis of the narrative is conducted with “universal” criteria, then it seems to lack the same thing that is missing from the generation of its creator. The millennials have declared war on patriarchy (and rightly so), but often they place it almost exclusively at the center of their enemies, of the sources that create their problems. It appears as if exploitation becomes more sustainable when it is absent, and this is nothing more than the usual alienation offered by capitalism (whether in a theocratic or secular guise), suggesting that the absence or presence of a condition, its replacement or addition, can make life more bearable.

Although the story narrated by Roustayi encompasses everything, including the origin of the family, private property, and the state, it ultimately focuses solely on the “distorted” development that arises due to the development of patriarchy, which it highlights as a cause rather than a result of the organization of exploitation. The tragic heroes of the film, who lose everything due to the existence of patriarchal regression, would lose everything anyway, precisely because even if the one factor that created obstacles to their progress did not exist, all the others would still be there. These factors both prevent the lower classes from living without poverty and allow the poor soul to always believe that they will succeed. A well-intentioned viewer might guess that the story tells everything, but beyond the viewer’s conjectures, the message of the creator also matters, even for reasons of integrity – and this only goes up to a certain point, in full alignment with the messages characteristic of the “progressive within the walls” ideology of the era.

Regarding the cinematography, there is an impressive introduction with incredible images that balance between capturing the mass and the individual, which, however, is not continued in the rest of the film. The narrative itself changes, shifting from a direct social focus to illustrating how the relationships within society are reflected through the relationships between characters, the family, and the protagonists.

Perhaps, though, this is simply a step before the next, greater one.

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