Iranian Artists Fear Throwback to Days of Censorship ; from the Silver Screen to Print, Artistic Freedom in Iran Is at a 25- Year Peak. Yet a Shift of Power from Reformers to Conservatives Could Result in a Crackdown

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Few subjects in Iran are as sensitive or sacred as the ruling clergy. So when "The Lizard" premiered here recently, it was bound to spark a reaction.

The movie follows a thief who steals clerical robes to escape prison, and then gets unexpectedly wrapped up in life as a holy man. While poking fun at the foibles and privileges of the turbaned class, the new comedy also delivers a deeper religious message that anyone can reach God.

But after a private screening in Tehran, director Kamal Tabrizi was cornered by a mullah. "You make people laugh, but you give them a green light to ridicule the clergy," Hojatoleslam Mustafa Elahi scolded Mr. Tabrizi.

"You're wrong," replied Tabrizi. "This is a very religious film."

"The film was great - I was laughing so hard that I could hardly hold my turban on my head!" the cleric cut in, cracking a smile. "I saw myself in it. But you focused more on making fun of the clergy, and not enough on scenes of repentance and returning to God."

The face-off shows how far Iran's cultural landscape has opened in recent years under reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami. From the silver screen to paint and print, Iran's artists have never been as free to express themselves since Iran's Islamic revolution 25 years ago.

But some worry that the relative openness may be imperiled - or at least subject to far stricter interpretation - now that conservatives regained control of parliament from reformers in a Feb. 20 vote.

"This can be the beginning of many bad things," says Lili Golestan, owner of the Golestan Gallery. A decade ago, she says, the Revolutionary Guard would question her weekly about her exhibits.

"Before Khatami, we had to show them photographs and paintings, and they would choose: this one, not that one. I think they will do that again," says Ms. Golestan, who has pushed the envelope these days, even showing nudes. "Perhaps you see that things have changed, but deep down they have not. The deep thing is this revolution, and the belief has not changed."

Artist Parvaneh Etemadi, whose latest show is at the Golestan Gallery, says she hopes both political camps "eat each other up, and we finish with them.

"Everything is politics. You can't avoid it; it follows you everywhere," says Ms. Etemadi. She hopes a new book of hers now at a publishing house has been approved "before the system changes."

Any growth in artistic freedom should be allowed in a controlled way, says Hussein Shariatmadari, representative of Iran's supreme religious leader. "This openness will continue on its normal path, according to the law," says Mr. Shariatmadari, who heads the hard- line Kayhan publishing group, whose newspapers have been critical of "The Lizard. …