Bahram Beyzai, “Death of Yazdgerd / Mard Yazdgerd” (1982)
Running close to 2 hours with a small cast, a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push its plot and message, and a very minimal and claustrophobic setting, this film betrays its origins as a stage play. Beyzai not only directed this film, he wrote the screenplay and produced it as well. Perhaps as a result, too much of the stage play and the style of acting it requires appear in the film to the extent that the action gets stuck going round and round in a groove while the actors flail about, banging on one story or another over and over and working themselves and each other into near-frenzy. The film drags very slowly and viewers unfamiliar with pre-Islamic Persian history and culture will find it very boring.
The film is based on the actual death of the last Sassanian shah, Yazdgerd III, in 651 CE while fleeing Arab forces invading the Persian empire: tradition has it that he was killed by a miller who was after his purse. In the film, the King is already dead and the Miller (Mehdi Hashemi), his Wife (Susan Taslimi) and their Daughter (Yasaman Arami) are on trial for his murder. The judges who have the power of life and death over them are a Priest (Mahmoud Behrouzian), a General (Amin Tarokh) and a Commander (Karim Akbar Mobarakeh), all of whom are very inclined to execute the impoverished family on the spot if they say anything that turns out to be a trigger word. Desperate to save their necks from an improvised garrotte, the three family members offer various exculpatory versions of how the King died in the hope they will be pardoned: initially the family mistakes the king for a bandit having robbed the King of his wealth and finery; in another version, the King has seduced the Daughter; in yet another version, the King has killed the Miller and exchanged clothing; in still another alternative story, the King is keen on the Wife instead and suggests eloping with her. In the meantime, while the family construct ever more elaborate and contradictory stories on how the King died, Arab forces are steadily wiping out the shrinking Sassanian armies and are encroaching upon the Miller’s hut where the trial is taking place.
The actors – in particular Hashemi and Taslimi – put in excellent and intense performances, even though they can be very theatrical and not a little tiresome in parts. One must suspend disbelief and take for granted that a poor farming family far out from the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon has intimate knowledge of the King’s palace and its architectural arrangements. As the story constantly shifts, and the responsibility for the King’s death bounces from one person to the next (even onto the King himself), the viewer will marvel at the extent the Miller and his family are prepared to lie, or feel guilty as the lies pile up, one on top of the other. At some point in the film, the Daughter appears to be possessed by the spirit of the King himself and starts saying things only the King and his most intimate companions would know. Something of the rigidly hierarchical society and the belief in the near-divine status of the King – to the extent that even the Priest and the old General have never seen the King’s bare face – is revealed.
Through this film, Beyzai comments on the stagnant, corrupt and hierarchical society presided over by the Pahlavi shahs (their power underpinned by British and American support) from 1925 to 1979, and how that society was soon replaced by an equally repressive society supposedly based on Islamic principles. The King himself is revealed as a presumptuous autocrat who treats his subjects badly and whose lifestyle is far removed from the vast majority of Persians who toil endlessly to pay the heavy taxes that support the King’s lavish court. At the same time, the Arab forces that will soon defeat and make history out of the Sassanians are portrayed as dark savages carrying black flags, in contrast to the Sassanians’ white flags.
The Islamic government that replaced the Pahlavis quickly saw the historical parallel the film makes with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and what the film insinuates about the theocratic arrangements, and banned the film from being shown in cinemas. As the trial reaches its climax and the judges prepare to make their verdict, viewers who have stuck thick and thin with the meandering plot will be surprised by the fairy-tale nature of the outcome, which turns out not to amount to much when (to paraphrase a cliched utterance by one of the characters) history will be written by the victors.