Children of Heaven

             We in the West, particularly those of us who live in the United States,
     sometimes forget that there are national cinemas in almost every county.
     Sure, there's that annual Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film,
     but in general that tends to be awarded to directors who are well-known
     (i.e., Bergman, Fellini) or to films that have a particular appeal. (I won't
     open that can of worms by discussing which films fall into that category.)
     There have been instances when films that made the final five list were not
     even picked up for distribution, and some that were that received an
     extremely limited release. I'll admit that there was a time my own
     xenophobia kept me from seeing subtitled films, but a hundred years ago
     when I took film courses in college, I was introduced to world cinema
     and an entirely new venue was opened to me. I confess that I am not as
     knowledgeable as I should be, but I am willing to watch with an open mind.
     And I have to confess that this year, I've been extremely blessed to have
     seen a number of fine foreign- language pictures from varied countries
     (including a number that were submitted by their country as representatives
     for the Oscar). Among the latter is Iran's entry in the annual derby,
Children of Heaven.

             Up front, I have to say that what I know about Iranian cinema could
     fit in a thimble and like most Americans, I would venture to guess that
     I know as much about the country's mores and history as I do about our
     own. (And I was a history major in college!) I had seen
The White Balloon
     on Bravo and heard a few things about other films like Taste of Cherry.
     I knew that some Iranian filmmakers used children as their main characters
     in part as a means of subverting strict governmental regulations. So, I
Children of Heaven with trepidation. Would I get it? Would
     it speak to me, the complacent American viewer? In a word, yes.

             Director Majid Majidi has spun a fairly simple, almost fable-like,
     tale centered on of all things a pair of shoes. Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian),
     a schoolboy from a poor family, has been told to retrieve his sister's pink
     shoes from the cobbler who is repairing them. On the way home, he is
     also to stop for some vegetables. Putting down the package with the
     shoes, he searches for affordable vegetables. Unbeknownst to him, a blind
     peddler accidentally picks up the bag with the shoes.

             A scared Ali begs his sister Zahra (Bahareh Seddiqi) not to tell their
     parents as he knows they could barely afford the repairs never mind a
     new pair of shoes. He concocts a plan for he and sister to share his
     worn-out sneakers. She attends school in the mornings; he in the afternoons.
     They meet halfway and exchange footwear (trading the sneakers for sandals),
     all the while keeping the truth from their parents. The plan is not without
     problems as there are constant mishaps, making Ali late for classes.
     Meanwhile Zahra spots the peddler's daughter wearing her shoes and
     decides to confront the family until she realizes that they are even worse off
     than her family. Their father takes Ali with him to a posh section of Tehran
     in the hopes of earning extra money doing gardening work, but the sojourn
     very nearly proves fruitless.

             Finally, Ali seizes on a plan to enter a foot race because the third
     prize is a new pair of sneakers. Although the film is ostensibly about a pair
     of shoes (in fact the film's original English title was
Pink Shoes), Majidi
     is dealing with deeper issues. Ali and his family are of Turkish descent
     (which constitutes the largest ethnic minority in Iran) and the poverty in
     which they live is telling. But the writer-director (influenced by neo-realist
     filmmakers like De Sica) was striving to show how these characters
     maintain their dignity in the face of such impoverishment. When Ali and
     his father go in search of work as gardeners and enter the more upscale
     section of Tehran, it is as if they have entered into a different film.
     Similarly, during the race in which Ali is competing, Majidi's camera
     catches men and woman of some means cheering on their children who
     are better dressed and wear better sneakers than Ali.

Children of Heaven has been called "manipulative" by some of my
     colleagues, but it is no more so than any Steven Spielberg movie. Perhaps
     their comments come because of the abilities of the lead. Mir Farrokh
     Hashemian has large, expressive brown eyes and he seemingly can cause
     them to well up with tears without even trying. I found him and his
     performance to be quite remarkable; touching in his pride and his gumption.
     Similarly, the Zahra of Bahareh Seddiqi was also moving. As with youngsters,
     the two did not seem to be acting, merely being. One might quibble that
     the adults are more two- dimensional, but that is as it should be. Majidi is
     telling this story from a child's eye perspective and in my opinion, he
     succeeded. There is tension in the final race as one wonders just how will
     the writer-director chose to end his film. (If it were made in America, one
     could see the ending as soon as the idea of the race was proposed). I
Children of Heaven on its own terms, that is, as a chance
     to experience a new world. And I was grateful to have the two young leads
     as my guide.

                                             Rating:            B+
                                             MPAA Rating:    PG
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.