IF YOU'VE BEEN enjoying the recent burst of Iranian films, you can thank director Dariush Mehrjui. His 1970 feature The Cow exposed the world to Iranian cinema, and did so well on the festival circuit the Shah was persuaded to devote a large amount of government funds to the country's fledgling film community. Another fan, who saw The Cow while in exile, was the Ayatollah Khomeini; he later insured the largesse continued, despite increased censorship.

Mehrjui has made more than a dozen films since then (including adaptations of Ibsen and J.D. Salinger). Leila, from 1997, is the first of these to be released in the United States. Though it's no longer surprising that first-rank world directors can be unknown in the West, it still galls when we're denied viewing the work of a major talent. Based on Leila, I'm prepared to say that we've been missing out on a master.

This story, like all great social protest movies, is couched in melodrama. Leila (Leila Hatami) is newly married to Reza (Ali Mosaffa). The newlyweds' joy is immediately tinged, upon learning that Leila is sterile and the marriage will almost certainly be childless. Reza is fine with the news -- but his mother (Jamileh Sheikhi) is absolutely not. Worming her way into her daughter-in-law's home and head, she convinces Leila to "allow" Reza to take a fertile second wife, a solution neither Leila nor Reza wants or could even tolerate.

Mehrjui doesn't play with truth and fiction as glibly as many of the Iranian directors who emerged in his wake, but you'd never mistake his style for naturalism. He's as fair-minded an observer of self-delusion as Ophuls, and as perceptive as Sirk of how even the loveliest home can become a trap. Those are formidable comparisons, but Mehrjui earns them.

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