"Children of Heaven" Review

By Ari Siletz www.arisiletz.com

This movie was produced by Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, an important fact for the Western viewer to keep in mind. "Children of Heaven" is a charming fable that teaches us how to be good Iranians. Paradoxically, its simple plot also reveals the tragedies that befall those who learn their lesson too well. The gentleness, compassion, honesty and courage that the narrative so ably demonstrates give rise to the protagonists' questionable act of forbearance: their noble resolve not to burden authority figures with their problem.

Through no fault of his, nine-year-old Ali loses his little sister's shoes while on an errand to have them mended. He worries less about punishment than the reason for it. His family is in terrible financial straits, rent is five months overdue, and his mother is sick. Ali is concerned that another piece of bad news could break his father. The only person who needs to know about the shoes is his little sister. Those were, after all, her only shoes. How is she supposed to go to school?

Ali's father likes to yell a lot, but we soon realize that he is a gentle and impeccably honest soul who truly loves his family. Most of his blustering is directed at his sick wife for not taking it easy; he saves the rest of his voice for Ali for not helping his mother enough. In his quieter moments he likes to dream about what jobs he could do to make life better for his family. The father is so honest that he drinks his tea without lump sugar - which he can't afford -- even as he is chopping up a mountain of lump sugar belonging to the mosque.

The mother of the family is an angel of forbearance and charity. Though she has been ordered not to work, we learn she tried to wash the family rug--an exhausting task even for a healthy person. The tiny living room, which also serves as the family bedroom, TV room, children's study, tool shed, and kitchen, is orderly and spotless. Despite her poverty she feels she has enough to send a bowl of soup now and then to an elderly neighbor.

Ali and his sister Zahra cannot bear to saddle their hard working parents with yet one more burden. So they scheme to share Ali's dilapidated sneakers until a solution presents itself. Since they go to school in different shifts, little Zahra wears the sneakers to school first, then runs out in a flopping rush to pass them on to her anxiously waiting brother.

Director Majid Majidi does not paint a picture of poverty, he depicts need and healthy struggle. Poverty is lonely and despairing, while need encourages cooperation and innovation. To solve the problem of having only one pair of shoes, brother and sister team up in a beautifully coordinated relay. It is only later--when the camera takes us to an affluent neighborhood where Ali's father has found a job--that we encounter loneliness in the midst of plenty. There, a young boy living in a mansion with his grandfather begs Ali to play with him. As father and son enter the mansion, reeking of struggle and eager sweat, we feel sorry for the isolated residents of these marbled mausoleums.

Ali's neighborhood, on the other hand, is teeming with activity. In the sun baked, clay and brick alleys, the vegetable seller separates his potatoes into fat ones that he can sell to his credit worthy customers, and scrawny ones for which he may not get paid for a long time. The cobbler is busy with shoes he has mended over and over again. A mother unravels the yarn from an old sweater to knit a new one for her newborn. The daughter of the blind knickknack seller plays hide and seek with her father, while another door-to-door junk trader swaps a used plastic colander for a pair of worn shoes. Kids play soccer in alleys much narrower than the distance between goal posts, and grown men cry over their tea while the mullah recites a passion play in the mosque.

Yet, despite being surrounded by a spiritually prosperous community, Ali and Zahra refrain from sharing their problem. This bit of martyrdom, likely lauded by Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, fits the overly considerate spirit of Iran's ideal culture. These children, like the other denizens of these alleys, wish to lighten the collective load, not add to it. They are children of heaven, after all. Why should their parents have to suffer for the loss of the shoes? Here we start to see the tragic contradictions in the commendable principles of Iranian social interactions.

Saying that his mother is ill, Ali declines his teammates' invitation to play in an upcoming soccer match. As he is the best runner in the neighborhood, this is a huge let down for the team. If he had let his teammates know of his shoe problem, the plot could have taken the direction where the team cooperates in getting the family a new pair of shoes. A win-win situation. As it is, they were not given the opportunity. If Ali had let his school master know why he was late to school every day, the school could have devised a solution. Instead, the school master was put in a position of almost expelling a desperate child. The toll on his conscience would have been great.

Zahra's secretiveness is even more frustrating. She finds out that one of her schoolmates is wearing her lost shoes. She does not accuse the schoolmate of theft, a praiseworthy postponing of judgment. On the other hand, Zahra keeps this schoolmate completely in the dark about a situation the girl has a right to know about. The tragedy here is that the friendship that could have formed between these two as a result of the mix-up would have been much stronger if Zahra had shared her thoughts. As it was, this schoolgirl remains a charity case, no more. Majid does not present this as a loss. The audience admires Zahra for keeping quiet, reinforcing the dubious notion that compassion trumps sorting things out.

After numerous episodes of annoying non-communication, Ali discovers that third prize in a long distance running event is a pair of shoes. With the help of a kindly gym teacher - in whom he does not confide - Ali sets out to win third place in the contest.

"Children of Heaven" was nominated for an Oscar in 1999 - "Life is Beautiful," another movie in praise of well intentioned subterfuge, won that year. "Children" has captured high honors across the globe from Singapore to Finland to Canada. In Iran, the film won best film, best director, best screenplay (and oddly, best makeup artist!). These awards and numerous rave reviews are swept away by the display of friendship, persistence, love and trust as brother and sister get their arms around a problem apparently too big for them. The characters and their problems certainly have universal appeal, but I found most of the value of this movie in what it illuminates about the peculiarities of the Iranian psyche. The Iranian respect for uncomplaining forbearance derives from the high value placed on the nation's unique flavors of humility. "Children" must ask permission to speak to their teacher, even in answer to a direct question. Yet despite this ritual acknowledgment of the disparity in the student-teacher power relationship, the teacher uses words like "befarmayeed" [command me] on the student. Much of this verbal shadow play is understandably lost in the subtitling. "Befarmayeed," a word used almost unconsciously by Iranians when they invite a guest inside, is translated as "go [on in]." For the Persian speaking viewer it is difficult not to lament the loss of irony when a principal who has just expelled a student invites him back in with a "befarmayeed." This odd hybrid of sarcasm and humbleness is one of Persian culture's favorite assortments humility.

Another example of highly illuminating self-lowering word usage is the word "Bandeh Khoda," literally Slave of God, used in this movie to refer to a blind person. Iranians so often refer to themselves as "Bandeh," slave, that the word has almost become synonymous with the pronoun "I." "Bandeh Khoda" however is a term reserved for those less fortunate than the speaker. In this centuries-old politically correct speech, Iranians acknowledge their own good fortune by disowning their personal pride in it. All slaves are, after all, equal. Every scene in "Children" seems to feast on Iran's highly developed art of self deprecation, loosely known as ta'arof. Not surprisingly, humility has been the preoccupation of many of Iran's most beloved contributors to her civilization, the Sufi poets, Rumi, Hafez, Khayyam, Saadi and so on.

Keeping in mind the Iranian obsession with self lowering, it is not surprising that the movie's climax has to do with whether the protagonist will succeed in finishing third in the race. The audience has seen enough heart and determination in this little boy to know he could outrun a herd of wildebeest, but will he stay true to his humble quest? Director Majid Majidi has personal experience with this dilemma. He told his family he was studying engineering, a high paying respectable job, when in fact he was studying drama, a much less desirable pursuit because of its low prospects of employment and Iranian society's lack of respect for the performing arts. We are very fortunate that Majidi lied to his family and humbly decided not to finish "first." It is hard to imagine any kind of engineering work this unassuming and socially aware director may have done to match his contributions to the world of art.

Iran's highly regarded Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (website in Persian) is also in part a government propaganda organization. Its sponsorship of "Children" should alert the viewer to possible bias in the movie's contents. However, Majidi hides a powerful message in this movie that grows more and more subversive as Iran's global confrontations intensify. Ali does not succeed in finishing third. To his great chagrin he accidentally comes in first. The disappointed face of Zahra, when she realizes her brother has not come home with the shoes, is the face of the people of Iran in the not too distant future. As Iran's ever advancing military technology continues to drain her resources, Iranians will say to their government, "We didn't want first place, we didn't want glory or fame. We are a people who take pride only in our humility. All we asked of our revolution was bread, education, jobs, medicine." All we asked for was a pair of shoes.

Originally Published November 5, 2006

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