Few subjects in Iran are as sensitive or sacred as the ruling clergy. So when "The Lizard" premiered here recently, it was bound to spark a reaction.
The movie follows a thief who steals clerical robes to escape prison, and then gets unexpectedly wrapped up in life as a holy man. While poking fun at the foibles and privileges of the turbaned class, the new comedy also delivers a deeper religious message that anyone can reach God.
But after a private screening in Tehran, director Kamal Tabrizi was cornered by a mullah. "You make people laugh, but you give them a green light to ridicule the clergy," Hojatoleslam Mustafa Elahi scolded Mr. Tabrizi.
"You're wrong," replied Tabrizi. "This is a very religious film."
"The film was great - I was laughing so hard that I could hardly hold my turban on my head!" the cleric cut in, cracking a smile. "I saw myself in it. But you focused more on making fun of the clergy, and not enough on scenes of repentance and returning to God."
The face-off shows how far Iran's cultural landscape has opened in recent years under reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami. From the silver screen to paint and print, Iran's artists have never been as free to express themselves since Iran's Islamic revolution 25 years ago.
But some worry that the relative openness may be imperiled - or at least subject to far stricter interpretation - now that conservatives regained control of parliament from reformers in a Feb. 20 vote.
"This can be the beginning of many bad things," says Lili Golestan, owner of the Golestan Gallery. A decade ago, she says, the Revolutionary Guard would question her weekly about her exhibits.
"Before Khatami, we had to show them photographs and paintings, and they would choose: this one, not that one. I think they will do that again," says Ms. Golestan, who has pushed the envelope these days, even showing nudes. "Perhaps you see that things have changed, but deep down they have not. The deep thing is this revolution, and the belief has not changed."
Artist Parvaneh Etemadi, whose latest show is at the Golestan Gallery, says she hopes both political camps "eat each other up, and we finish with them.
"Everything is politics. You can't avoid it; it follows you everywhere," says Ms. Etemadi. She hopes a new book of hers now at a publishing house has been approved "before the system changes."
Any growth in artistic freedom should be allowed in a controlled way, says Hussein Shariatmadari, representative of Iran's supreme religious leader. "This openness will continue on its normal path, according to the law," says Mr. Shariatmadari, who heads the hard-line Kayhan publishing group, whose newspapers have been critical of "The Lizard." He says the law will now "for sure" be more rigorously enforced and that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has made "mistakes." Criticism, however, did not prevent the movie from winning best film and other awards at Tehran's Fajr Film Festival last month.
Director Tabrizi says the views of the regime are changing, and he expects Iran- ian culture to make further gains in the future. "We will be able to do much more a year from now," he says. "When there is conflict between right and left, you do not get the chance to state your point freely. In all fields, [conservatives] want to attract people's attention, so there will be more freedom." Still, many artists expect the ministry of culture to continue to exercise strong oversight, if not direct control.
"I don't think things will change a lot - they can't take back the little democracy that people have got, they just can't set the society back," says Farzad Motamen, a US-trained independent filmmaker.
Mr. Motamen decided to set aside his latest project after official script readers demanded strategic changes. "They won't let me make it, because it is critical," he says. "I'm not interested in any [government] control." This predicament is familiar in Iran's film industry, which is largely financed by the ministry of culture.
Similar frustration also infects the layout rooms at Tavoos, or "Peacock" - a quarterly magazine that considers itself as the "guardian of Iranian art and culture." The last issue was published in early 2001; seven more issues are ready to go to press, but cash is too short to have them printed - and low-interest loans require official approval, which has not come.
Manijeh Mir-Emadi, editor of Tavoos, sent out a letter of apology to subscribers promising "strength to continue ... despite the obstacles we face." She says "it's too soon to judge" whether current political changes will permit future publication.
For filmmaker Motamen, a quarter century of clerical rule has made him "used to living with these limitations." He's made two experimental films, but had to "go commercial" on a third film that he didn't want to make, in order to "pay the rent."
Still, there were issues. Motamen had to cut a shot taken at a distance of a woman taking off her shoes, because there was a man in the room. He had to cut a Nancy Sinatra song because women cannot sing in public. And he was asked why his lead actress smoked cigarettes.
"She's a femme fatale! She is supposed to kill people, use drugs, have wild sex, and I just have her smoking cigarettes," Motamen says, exasperated. "Just leave me alone!"