God works in mysterious ways, or so goes the premise in the piquant comedy, THE LIZARD, a film that makes me seriously wonder if Frank Capra is alive and well and working in Iran.
Our hero is Reza (Parviz Parastui in a wonderfully deadpan performance), a petty thief known as The Lizard. It’s a nickname he earned by being able to scale the sheerest of walls, a talent that has resulted in a long criminal record behind him, and a life-sentence in front of him. His warden welcomes him to prison by telling him that he’s not there for punishment, but for redemption. He, the warden, will make sure Reza gets to heaven. In the meantime, Reza’s good deeds, such as rescuing a dove from barbed wire, will be punished with solitary confinement, and his bad deeds will be dealt with in a way that makes one question what the warden’s definition of justice is exactly. Despairing of his future, certain that religion is a joke, Reza contemplates suicide. It lands him in an outside hospital next to a mullah, also named Reza, with a penchant for quoting not from the Koran, but from the Saint-Exupery’s classic, The Little Prince. There’s something about this mullah, his rough hands and his unassuming manner, that touches Reza, but not enough to stop him from stealing the other Reza’s religious robes and making a break for it before he can be sent back to prison.
With quick wits and a lifetime of street smarts behind him, Reza manages to pass as a mullah with only a few bumps along the way, even when fate has him taking over a rundown mosque and its ragtag congregation. Fortunately, since people see the robes and the turban, they don’t think anything amiss. In fact, they find his eccentricities endearing. They are even more enchanted when he answers theological conundrums with common sense and in language that they can all understand. It would seem that not being bound by dogmatic orthodoxy has its advantages, as does using the Socractic method of asking his flock what they think. If there is an ethical issue with him explaining during a sermon that there are many paths to God, and by using the analogy of entering a house with a key or by picking the lock or by climbing over the wall, I am hard-pressed to find it troubling. The congregation is inspired to be better human beings, and Reza, seeing the effect he’s having on them, not to mention the effect on him of getting respect from the people around him, gets a little inspired himself.
Tabrizi and screenwriter Peyman Ghassemkhani show the sort of compassion towards his characters that we would hope to get from whatever runs the universe. They are often silly, particularly the two young men who attach themselves to Reza, peppering him with questions about such things as the right way to pray in outer space, but they are never buffoons. The silliness only serves to demonstrate that in this universe, God or Fate or whatever has a wicked sense of humor. As Reza puts it to one of those acolytes suffering a bout of doubt, if God didn’t want us to have fun, why would He give us so many tools to make mischief with? It’s this attitude that got the film shut down in several Iranian cities by the more traditional clerics that the film spoofs so genially. It’s a different attitude that made it a box-office hit in others.
There is a wonderful ecumenicalism to all of this. While the clergy in question is a mullah and the religion Islam, the theology involved applies to any system of belief that is pro goodness and anti evil. What Tabrizi is preaching by way of Reza is a spirituality that transcends any particular theology and one that might have gotten him thrown into the same prison that held Reza by the Iranian theocracy in power twenty years or so ago, instead of merely being censored. This genuinely feel-good film delivers its sly message about the joys of enlightenment without thumping a religious tome of any sort, unless you count The Little Prince, of course, and some people do, and besides, it’s not so much thumped as dangled tantalizingly. In keeping with the respect THE LIZARD shows its characters, it extends that respect to the audience as well by not spoon-feeding it just one moral of the story. Instead, it asks his viewers to think for themselves, and that’s a radical move in any culture.