Some understanding of the roots of Iranian fanaticism may be found tucked neatly away in an unnerving little thriller made by an Iranian expatriate director-writer-actor.
Shot in New York, Parviz Sayyad's ''The Mission'' explores the journey of a young Iranian zealot from Tehran to Manhattan, from total unreasoning monomania to some measure of rational questioning of the aims and methods of his Khomeini-led masters. It is opening in selected cities across the country this month. Dialogue is in Farsi, with English subtitles.
Daoud Moslemi arrives in the United States on a mission to assassinate a former colonel in the Iranian secret police now living in exile. In the course of rescuing his intended victim (played by the director himself) from a subway mugging, Moslemi gets involved with the ex-colonel's family, including a sister-in-law who is a music conservatory student.
Moslemi, totally brainwashed by the fundamentalist regime, is forced to face the fact that there are intelligent, cultivated people who differ with his attitude toward such things as the arts (in the main, banned as being counterproductive in modern-day Iran). A long philosophical argument between the young man and the young girl helps establish some of the problems modern society faces in trying to counteract the extremism of religious fanaticism. The resolution is shocking, sensational, heartbreaking. But, true to the essential character of this unique piece of work, perhaps a quintessential 1980s film.
Shot in 16 mm on a $200,000 budget, ''The Mission'' is hardly a slick mainstream Hollywood film. There is just enough amateurism in the product to make it charmingly sincere. Yet neither is it a limited-appeal ''art'' film. It offers 110 minutes of tense, intelligent entertainment, a clear vision of an exotic, unfamiliar world, combined with a few moments of sociopolitical revelation. Few other recent films can make as valid a claim for your attention.
A chat with Parviz Sayyad
''You know a man by the friends he keeps,'' says Parviz Sayyad of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. ''And he is a close friend of the Ayatollah Khomeini.''
Mr. Sayyad came to America in 1979 before the hostage crisis, and he says he felt so ashamed of what was happening in his country that he was sorely tempted to hide his national identity. He had left Iran to make films in Europe and, although he was not an admirer of the Shah, ''At least you had theater and films under his regime.''
''Under both Khomeini and Qaddafi,'' says Sayyad, ''troops of children are being brainwashed. Fanatics are ordered to carry out terrible missions. Support of the revolution means being faithful to its leaders.''
Will Sayyad ever return to Iran?
''There is no possibility for me to return under the present regime,'' he says, ''because under the religious fanatics in power it is not possible to make films or be on the stage.''
Is there reason to be optimistic about the near future in Iran?
He shakes his head sadly. ''There is no bright future soon, I am afraid. But extreme fanaticism is an unnatural state, and sooner or later rationality will win out. However, you must remember that there is no history of justice and freedom for the people in Iran. Nothing to go back to. Since we cannot return to something good in our past, something new must be developed.''
According to Sayyad there is now a community of close to 200,000 Iranian expatriates in the Los Angeles area. Many of them were students here who decided not to go back when they saw what was happening under the Khomeini regime. He says that reaction to his film has been as varied as the political range among the expatriates.
''Conservatives feel I am too sympathetic to the revolution, leftists feel I am antirevolution, everybody would like it to be their own way. But I am trying to be as sincere as I can be.''
What purpose has the film other than to entertain as an exciting thriller?
Sayyad is serious and thoughtful. ''I wanted to depict a whole range of people whose basic human rights are being violated. And I intended to show that the rights of the fanatic are being violated, too, even though he may not realize it.''