Like moviegoers around the world, Americans enjoy Hollywood's pictures most. While a few foreign films make their way into US theaters, the process often works slowly. American distributors wait for opportune moments to pitch international products when there's a minimum of homegrown competition.
That's why January and February are such active months for overseas releases, since Hollywood likes to fire its biggest guns just before the year-end Oscar deadline. One of the nicest features of this season's foreign-film boomlet - now in New York and due to spread over the next few weeks - is its welcome sampling of Iranian movies. Of all the cultural developments in the past decade, few stand out more vividly than the growing recognition of Iran as an energetic and imaginative filmmaking force.
The constructive and even uplifting nature of Iranian film has come as a surprise to many Americans who are conditioned to media reports linking Iran with social and political problems.
It's true that Iran does not meet Western standards of personal, political, and artistic expression. Yet, paradoxically, this fact may have spurred the country's cultivation of a distinctive film industry.
Working in an environment marked by censorship to keep expression in line with social and religious norms, Iranian filmmakers have gravitated toward topics that allow them to flex their creative muscles with little fear of controversy.
Children at the center
Look at a selection of recent Iranian cinema and two over- arching subjects stand out: children, and movies about the filmmaking process itself. It's hard to think of more fascinating areas to explore - and how much trouble can you get into by looking at the lives of youngsters, or the challenges of artistic work for its own sake?
Other factors have also shaped Iranian cinema's preference for these subjects, as American critic Godfrey Cheshire has observed in his far-reaching research on Iran's film industry.
Children have become a major topic partly because they allow Iranian directors to explore complex, emotionally rich human situations without risking censorship violations, but also because the international success of Iranian youth-oriented pictures in the 1980s drew the notice of directors eager to make a comparable impact.
In a similar way, public enthusiasm for Abbas Kiarostami's drama "Close-Up" helped start a trend toward "self-reflexive cinema" about moviemaking itself.
On a deeper level, however, Mr. Cheshire notes that films-about-film relate to the long Persian and Islamic traditions of seeing the world - including the realms of art and culture - as mirrors of God and His creation.
While directors in Iran certainly stray from stories about children and filmmaking, the strong hold exercised by these subjects, and the risks that may arise when directors go too far afield, are borne out by Kiarostami's experience when he made "Taste of Cherry," about a troubled man who decides to end his life.
The film is closer to a philosophical essay than a movie melodrama, dominated by long, probing conversations about the human condition. Yet its 1997 premire at the Cannes International Film Festival was preceded by much speculation about whether Iran's government would allow the export of a work on a subject considered extremely sensitive under Islamic law.
Sure enough, the Cannes screening of "Taste of Cherry" was in question until the last minute, when Iran's government finally approved it, asserting that permission was delayed by nothing more sinister than a glitch in the country's licensing procedure.
'Close-Up': a turning point
The movie was glowingly received, and Kiarostami became the first Iranian filmmaker to win the Golden Palm, the festival's highest prize. But his triumph was dampened by Iran's apparent reluctance to unveil the picture, which treats its subject with great sensitivity as well as consummate skill.
If a single movie can be credited with launching Iranian film to worldwide renown, the honor probably goes to "Close-Up," directed by Kiarostami in 1990.
Inspired by a real-life incident, it focuses on a working-class man who's been obsessed with cinema all his life. Carried away by his enthusiasm, he approaches a middle-class family under a false identity - passing himself off as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a famous real-life filmmaker - and offers them roles in a movie production he's supposedly preparing.
The deception soon falls apart, and the imposter is arrested for attempted fraud. But genuine movie directors take an interest in his case, including Kiarostami, who interviews the accused man in jail and films much of his trial.
Kiarostami's courtroom material is included in "Close-Up," along with scenes in which the actual imposter reenacts his own con game after the fact - leading to a delicious ending in which the fake Makhmalbaf and the real Makhmalbaf have a friendly reunion with the family that almost fell for the scheme.
"Close-Up" gains much of its power from Kiarostami's inventiveness in mixing real-life ingredients with moving dramatic scenes.
Named by some critics as one of the most important films of the '90s, it's only now having its American theatrical premire - years after European and Asian audiences started roaring their approval.
A number of other Iranian movies have established themselves as modern classics, too. The industry's box-office champion is probably "The White Balloon," by Jafar Panahi, a stunning comedy-drama about a little girl's efforts to buy a goldfish for a holiday celebration.
An exciting, exotic realm
Also popular with American audiences are Makhmalbaf's colorful "Gabbeh," based on motifs from Iranian folklore, and Majid Majidi's sentimental "Children of Heaven," about a boy who enters a race to win a needed pair of shoes.
Majidi's new "Color of Heaven," about the challenges faced by a blind child, is due for US release later this year, as is "The Wind Will Carry Us," a magnificent drama by Kiarostami, the country's reigning directorial superstar.
Still considered exotic territory by many Americans, the world of Iranian film is steadily gaining international esteem and popularity. There's no more exciting realm to explore as cinema heads into its second century.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society