A Widening Gulf - "Baran" Review

By David Lipfert Offoffoff.com

A building-site worker makes a heavy sacrifice to reach his distantly admired love only to see her ride off, maybe forever, in the Iranian film "Baran," which has special meaning today as refugees flee Afghanistan.

Recent events have given the lone Iranian film in this year's New York Film Festival lineup added relevance. While "Baran" is essentially a boy-meets-girl flick, the situation of Afghani refugees in Iran is no less central. Their undocumented status means they can get only the lowest-paying jobs, such as the unskilled slots at mushrooming construction sites in well-heeled North Tehran. Mix them with another hard-up group, ethnic-Turkish workers from northwest Iran, and combustion is guaranteed.

As building-site gopher, wise guy Latif (Hossein Abedini) runs errands and makes tea for the other workers. He never misses a chance to shoot off his mouth and then jump in for a quick fight. Things change when Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami) shows up to replace injured father Najaf.

Taciturn Rahmat gallantly tries to take over Najaf's duties, but carrying heavy bags of cement up several flights is beyond the youth's abilities. Site manager Memar (Mohammad Amir Naji) shifts Latif to heavy lifting and Rahmat to the tea brigade. Rahmat quickly puts the canteen in order, and dinners for the workers seated around the sofreh plastic tablecloth turn into the main event of the day.

Envy and general spitefulness lead Latif to trash the kitchen and booby-trap Rahmat's way - until he chances a glimpse of someone else. Under the Afghani wrap and jumble of clothes to ward off the Tehrani winter is really Baran, Najaf's eldest daughter. Shepherded by Soltan (Hossein Mahjoob Abbas Rahimi), a senior Afghani at the site, she has been pressed into service to support her numerous family.

Writer/director Majid Majidi has taken a page from Mariam Shahriar's "Daughters of the Sun" (part of Lincoln Center's recent Iranian film festival) with this girl-disguised-as-boy twist. Latif quickly turns over a new leaf. The first victims are his unkempt garb and sassy tongue. His chivalry (he seems to be the only one to know the secret) extends to taking Rahmat/Baran's part in any dispute that comes up. He even seems to sprout a bit more facial hair.

City building inspectors put Latif's world into a tailspin by kicking out all the illegal Afghanis. As an Iranian citizen, Latif is fine, but he is about to risk everything to be with Baran. After he relocates Baran hauling heavy stones from spring-swollen streams and then her family in an Afghani enclave, he first presses for his back wages that foreman Memar has paternalistically kept back, ostensibly for Latif's own good. These he consigns to Soltan to give to Najaf and family allegedly as disability pay.

He is shocked when he learns Soltan has hightailed it back to Afghanistan, leaving Latif an IOU. His next move, though, will decide his entire future. He pawns his national ID card with an unscrupulous bazaari. This will mean he must work with undocumented status and probably cannot get back to his native Ardebil in northwestern Iran for a replacement, because all travel in border regions means repeated ID checks.

He rushes with wads of small bills to see Najaf, who seizes the chance to go back to Afghanistan himself, family in tow. Latif and Baran exchange portentous glances while collecting the last items for her long trip back. Then, in one of the most devastating scenes in new Iranian cinema to date, Baran flips her mantle over her head so it becomes an Afghani burka, the head-to-toe covering for women with mesh portal at face-level. It is a moment of finality for their relationship - but the beginning of a new, more precarious life for Latif.

One element in the film requiring explanation is the Afghani burka that Baran dons at the end. This covering was relatively unknown in the Afghani north (Najaf is from opposition Northern Alliance stronghold Bamayan) and west before the Soviet occupation. What the West sees as an instrument of female subjection is a potent resistance symbol among many in Afghanistan if not all. Majidi uses the burka to capture all the cultural and logistical barriers between Baran and Latif, who will now be separated, maybe forever.

This may be Majidi's most neo-realist effort to date. At times the way he lights Latif's face in daylight close-ups effectively mimics the Italian postwar masters. Framing, still camera work and social relevance are other aspects to this homage. His film title has a double meaning - it is the girl's name but also Persian for "rain." This latter is the symbol for springtime - when the girl Baran leaves Iran but also when Latif grows up. As the final moment in the film, an insistent shower fills up Baran's footprint in the mud before Latif heads back to Tehran to begin again.

While Majidi manages a compelling portrayal of the inter-group dynamics at the construction site, he also dips dangerously into stereotyping. Press most non-ethnic Iranians, and soon they will tell you that Turkish-ethnics are unpleasant and prone to fights at the slightest provocation. Afghanis fare worse - in popular thinking they are mean and thought to lay in wait for the opportunity to steal from unsuspecting (majority) Iranians. In spite of prejudices like these, Iran's complex tapestry of numerous ethnic groups at the country's geographic fringes for the most part coexists peacefully with the majority Persian-speaking population. The recent U.S. release "Djomeh" paints a far more sympathetic picture of economic and political refugees from Afghanistan.

Majidi made his name with the charming "Children of Paradise" in 1997. His later "The Color of Paradise" failed to capture Americans' interest because the portrait of nature intertwined with spirituality was never well-explained to the art-film crowd. "Baran" should prove more popular because of its upfront love story.

Originally Published October 2, 2001

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