The last decade has been an extraordinary period for Iranian cinema. Restricted by minuscule budgets, filmmakers have been forced to fall back on exactly those qualities that Hollywood thinks it can afford to ignore: character insight, social analysis and unadorned storytelling. The success of Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's best-known moviemaker, at international film festivals has increased interest in his work and that of his countrymen. His A Taste of Cherry turned up on a number of 1998 top ten lists, and Kiarostami's protege Jafar Panahi enjoyed widespread acclaim for his 1995 The White Balloon. Additionally, films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1993's The Actor, 1992's Once upon a Time, Cinema) and Dariush Mehrjui (1993's Sara and 1990's Hamoon) have been well received critically.
Such is the explosion of quality filmmaking in Iran that at last year's Singapore Film Festival -- which I attended, sitting on the critic's jury to choose the best Asian film -- the stylistically more familiar films of Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China were all outshone by the Iranian entries.
The best of those, Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (1997), was picked up for United States distribution by Miramax. Of the Iranian movies that have shown here in recent years, it is The White Balloon that Majidi's film most resembles; these two, as well as Panahi's most recent film, The Mirror (1997), center on the world of children, perhaps the most popular subject in recent Iranian cinema. Makhmalbaf provides some insight into the matter: "Since the 1979 revolution, the population of Iran has more than doubled....So half our society is made up of children. Naturally they make up a large portion of our film-going public, and when they go to the movies, they expect to see themselves," he explains in the press kit for Children of Heaven. "When you make films about children, you don't have to deal as much with censorship issues [dress code, for example] ... and political issues. Finally, children are the visions of our dreams. They are the embodiment of life more than anything else."
The plot of Majidi's film is simplicity itself. Ten-year-old Ali Mandegar (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) lives in poverty with his parents and his little sister, Zahra (Bahareh Seddiqi). One day he picks up Zahra's shoes at the cobbler, but he loses them on the way home. Given the family's financial straits, he is sure his father (Mohammad Amir Naji) will beat him if he finds out. So Ali convinces his sister that they should share his sneakers until the family's cash flow improves.
Zahra wears the sneakers to school each day, then runs to rendezvous with Ali and gives him the shoes so he can run to his school, which starts after her classes end. Their scheme works none too well: Despite his excellent grades, Ali is constantly late for class and finds himself in trouble with school authorities.
To make things worse, the sneakers are taking a beating. So when Ali learns that third prize in an upcoming race is a new pair of sneakers, he decides to enter and, rather than win, to come in third.
Children of Heaven owes a lot to its antecedents, both Iranian and European (Vittorio De Sica's 1949 The Bicycle Thief). (Actually, its story, but not its style, is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Landon's autobiographical 1976 TV movie, The Loneliest Runner, presumably a coincidence.) It skews toward the light tone of The White Balloon, which makes it easy to understand why Children of Heaven has been such a hit with young children.
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At the same time, Majidi is true to the potential for tragic seriousness in a child's perceptions of life, and his portrait of the family is far from pleasant. Mom is a chronic invalid, and Dad's dreams seem to far exceed his skills and intelligence. It's clear that Ali and Zahra are the family's best hopes.
Because Majidi made his film with Iranian audiences in mind, there are some cultural aspects that might not be clear to moviegoers here. For example, he took pains to cast an actor of Turkish origin as the father; that way, the character's accent would tip off viewers that he is a member of Teheran's sizable Turkish community.
It could be argued that Children of Heaven veers into Rocky territory toward the end, but Majidi never goes for cheap uplift or sentimentality. Indeed, Ali's experience in the race is presented with more than a little irony, and the film as a whole finds a balance between optimism and bleak social realism.
Children of Heaven.
Directed by Majid Majidi. With Mir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahareh Seddiqi and Mohammad Amir Naji.