A cursed age when man was wolf to man

“The Lizard” offers a glimpse of universal truths

Niels Strandskov

Even, or especially, in the face of danger, it’s important to laugh.

“The Lizard,” a new film from Iranian director Kamal Tabrizi, is not the kind of movie one might expect to see from a country on the eve of destruction.

Iran stands in a precarious position. For the United States, it is a pariah state and, worse, a pariah state with significant oil resources. We’ve seen what can happen to countries in this position. In fact, we’ve seen this in Iran itself in 1953, when the United States and Britain conspired to depose the country’s democratically elected leader, Prime Minister Mossadeq, and install the tyrannical Shah.

Since 1979, of course, Iran has been an Islamic republic, ruled by a council of clergymen and a democratically elected president.

Now, surrounded by nuclear enemies, including the world’s only superpower, the people of Iran must decide whether to continue with the status quo or push for a speed-up in the ongoing reform process.

It is into this context that “The Lizard” arrived last spring, causing consternation in the government and breaking Iranian box office records.

The film recalls the 1989 Robert De Niro and Sean Penn vehicle “We’re No Angels.” Instead of two U.S. crooks posing as Catholic priests, however, “The Lizard” features one Iranian second-story man on the lam who disguises himself as a mullah and escapes to a remote border town. There, he finds himself dragooned into service as the leader of a mosque.

The mosque happens to be located in a tough neighborhood where people are more concerned with appeasing the local gangsters than paying their respects to God.

In a village this neglected, it takes an armed robber to bring people back to their faith.

The criminal-turned-preacher is known as “the Lizard” because he can scale walls like a gecko. But it’s his skills as a diplomat and wise guy (plus a few comical misunderstandings) that endear the Lizard to his new flock.

As he searches for a confederate who can help him cross the border, the Lizard winds up convincing his naive congregation that he is practically a saint.

Even when he solves a dispute between a divorced couple by head-butting the main tough guy, his flock takes it as more proof of his divine inspiration.

After the Lizard’s escape from prison, he’s pursued by the warden, a cross between Dr. Phil and Colonel Klink, who practices tough love with the emphasis on “tough.” As the warden’s net tightens, the Lizard continues to grow into his role; he achieves a kind of grace that he neither sought nor expected.

The story unfolds with a sly but gentle wit that is a refreshing change from the slick, jaded hypocrisy of most comedies. That humor is all the more surprising given the serious challenges that Iran must soon surmount.

When the bombs are falling in Tehran, we can look at “The Lizard,” as well as the more-serious films by Abbas Kiarostami and the Makhmalbaf family, and witness the beauty and profundity of the culture that our military is destroying.