|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
approached 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
enjoyed 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.
MPAA Rating: PG
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.