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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 May, 2004, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Row builds over Iran cleric film
By Sebastian Usher
BBC World media reporter

Pressure is building in Iran to ban a film which is widely seen as satirising the country's religious authorities.

Tehran cinema-goers
Lizard king: Women queue for Marmoulak at a Tehran cinema

Several big cities outside Tehran have now banned the film Marmoulak - which translates as the Lizard.

It tells the story of a thief who escapes prison by dressing up as a mullah and then performs a number of outrageous actions while wearing the robes of a religious man.

It has been a huge hit in Iran since its release several weeks ago, but it has roused increasing opposition from some factions of the country's religious elite.

The Lizard's release was delayed by a month as the religious authorities debated whether or not to ban it.

It was finally released last month with minor cuts from the version that won the best film award at Tehran's international film festival in February.

It was an immediate hit.

The audience lapped up the comedy, as the film's lead character Reza Marmoulak - or Reza the Lizard - revels in the privileges and power with which his fraudulent donning of clerical robes endows him.

Poisonous sting

Such mainstream satire of Iranian clerics is unprecedented.

But conservative religious leaders have struck back.

First, the city of Mashhad and now others like Orumiyeh and Rasht have banned it.

Qom - the main theological centre in Iran - has never even considered releasing it.

Some cinemas have been broken into and reels of the film stolen.

The head of the powerful Guardian Council, Ahmed Jannati, conceded he had not seen it but said from what he had heard it was a very ugly film and should be stopped.

The leading conservative newspaper, Jumhuri-ye Eslami, has mounted a campaign against the Lizard, renaming it The Scorpion because - as the newspaper puts it - it attacks social norms with its poisonous sting.

Tongue in cheek

Reformist newspapers have just as firmly defended it.

The filmmakers argue that the film's ultimate message is one the conservatives should approve - in the end, Reza the thief has a change of heart and finds God under the influence of a simple, pious cleric.

And they say no-one - not even the religious elite - should be above constructive criticism.

Not all religious authorities have opposed the film - on his popular weblog, one of the country's vice presidents, Mohammed Ali Abytahi, has praised it.

But he added, tongue-in-cheek, that he hoped his recommendation - coming from a religious leader - would not harm the film's box-office takings.

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