To be banned in Iran is surely an accolade, given the narrow-minded Islamic fundamentalists in power there. The Lizard was plagued by censorship despite becoming a 2004 box-office hit. The public loved this irreverent satire, perhaps even more so after conservative clerics clamped down. Happily for Vermonters, it will screen at Montpelier's ninth annual Green Mountain Film Festival. This year's edition offers 32 features, documentaries and shorts from nine countries at the Savoy Theater and City Hall Arts Center from March 17 through 26.
Lizard director Kamal Tabrizi, working from a screenplay by Peiyman Ghassemkhani, has created a truly humane comedy of errors that transcends any ayatollah smear campaign. And for those of us who don't understand Farsi, the humor translates smoothly through English subtitles.
Reza, the sly protagonist, refers to God as "the heaviest of dudes" and suggests there are many paths to enlightenment. While no volatile Danish cartoon of Allah, this release clearly could upset rigid religious thinkers.
Dubbed The Lizard because of his agility in scaling walls to commit armed robbery, Reza is sentenced to life in prison as a repeat offender. He encounters a warden there who regularly punishes him with solitary confinement for the slightest infraction of rules, or for no reason at all. In the title role, Parviz Parastouie is a Persian Peter Sellers, with the comic gifts of deadpan delivery and perfect timing.
After accidentally cutting his arm in a half-hearted suicide attempt, Reza is hospitalized. When he steals a turban, robes and sunglasses from another patient - a gentle mullah who reads The Little Prince rather than the Koran - escape is easy. Everyone defers to a holy man, of course.
Unable to shed the disguise for fear of apprehension, Reza ends up in a remote town where the humble mosque awaits its new leader. Mistaken identity prevails.
The congregants are thrilled by Reza's down-to-earth sermons, delivered with an improvisational flourish only a streetwise crook could manage. But they're not a bland bunch. Two young divinity students dog his every step, asking sincere questions about the appropriate way to pray at the North Pole or in outer space. Not even "the heaviest of dudes" could fail to enjoy this remarkable movie.
Among the American productions unspooling at the fest are five from Vermont, such as a premiere of The Singers by Susan Bettmann of Middlesex. She has adapted an Ivan Turgenev story about a writer whose sad outlook is changed by the healing power of music.
Music -- in particular, classical -- and the movies will be the subject of a discussion with Lloyd Schwartz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist often heard in National Public Radio commentaries. Hollywood screenwriter Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha) will also be on tap for a question-and-answer session. And Matt Hays, a noted Canadian film critic, is slated to cross the border for a chat with festival programmer/Savoy owner Rick Winston.
Asked how the event's diverse motion pictures are chosen, Winston acknowledges, "It always depends on who returns our phone calls. So, for instance, this year we have one film from Asia and five or six from the Middle East."
One of the latter, Paradise Now, is an Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner from Palestine about two young men assigned to become suicide bombers.
From a more peaceful part of the world, Hawaii, Oslo is the kind of spiritually inclined film that owes a debt to Wings of Desire. The celestial beings that walk among us in director Erik Poppe's Norway are no cheerier than their German counterparts in the brooding 1988 Wim Wenders fantasy, but thankfully the Scandinavian variety don't talk as much.
These are action angels, especially the handsome Vidar (Trond Espen Seim), who works as a night nurse in a psychiatric clinic and can see glimpses of the future whenever he falls asleep. A patient named Leon (Jan Gunnar Roise) is panicked by the prospect of reuniting with a long-lost girlfriend. His problem, according to the pop psychology so prevalent in movies, is that he simply can't bring himself to say, "I love you."
Meanwhile, several other interesting dramas unfold -- and cross paths, much like those intricate storylines in the American-made Crash. The goal, apparently, is getting by with a little help from our featherless friends.
For more information about the Green Mountain Film Festival, call 229-0598, visit http://www.focusonfilm.net or check out this column on March 22.