Islamic Republic’s Treatment of Confusing Signifiers: The Curious Case of Marmulak

By Babak Tabarraee
Submitted to Session P4988 (Anxieties, Resistances, and the Clergy in Egyptian and Iranian Film, 2017 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
What does the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) do when faced with a popular cultural product that can easily be appropriated by its antagonistic factions? Taking the ever-changing reception of Kamal Tabrizi’s controversial Marmulak (The Lizard / 2003) as a micro-study, this paper aims to provide a theoretical framework for explaining the mindset of the IRI vis-a-vis such potentially disruptive phenomena. Marmulak depicts the story of a roughneck prisoner who escapes from jail by stealing the clothes of a cleric and then, maintains the pretense of a mullah in a small border town before getting arrested. It was the first Iranian comedy directly targeting the dress code of the clergy. Since its release fourteen years ago, it has continued to elicit a variety of opposing interpretations that position it as everything from a conservative, reformist, anti-clerical, or even transcendental film. How and why, then, did this film become a cultural battleground for the ulama; the speakers and heads of the judiciary, legislative and executive systems; many prominent political figures such as Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hasan Rouhani; and the intelligentsia both inside and outside Iran? And what does the vicissitudes of the reception of this film, from its ban, censorship and curtailed screening in 2004 to being claimed as a favorite film of the supreme leader and acclaimed as a nominee for the major award in the 2016 edition of the “Clergy and Cinema” festival tell us about the IRI’s treatment of confusing signifiers?

I argue that, rather than evading these floating signifiers, the IRI welcomes them, overloads them with more possible readings, and aligns them with other, similar mass-produced phenomena. This is a strategy specially heightened in the times of intense cultural wars, such as Khatami’s reform and Rouhani’s moderate governments. A detailed examination of more than 250 Persian and English news items and critical pieces shows that, instead of considering Marmulak as a cinematic expression, both the journalists and scholarly have been mostly preoccupied with decoding the religious or political messages of the film. Analyzing and categorizing these mostly content-centered approaches, I further argue that not only they function as safety-valves, but the IRI uses them to re-assert its own definitive boundaries. Thus, studying Marmulak’s reception can serve as an indicator of both the IRI’s internal tensions and the mechanisms it employs to resolve them.