By David Ng Images Journal
"Baran" is set in Iran and follows a teenaged construction worker named Latif (Hossein Abedini). Latif is Iranian, as are most of the workers who toil daily at what must be a large suburban office building but whose dank, crumbling walls more closely resemble the remnants of an air raid. Among the workers are a few Afghans. Because of their illegal status, the Afghans must hide whenever government inspectors call, which happens quite often, sending the site manager, a gruff but soft-hearted man named Memar, into fits of hysterics as he corals his motley work force from one hiding place to another. Memar himself is of undetermined ethnicity (he speaks both Farsi and Turkish), which does nothing to ingratiate him with Latif, who already suspects him of embezzling the workers' salary. Latif and Memar fight constantly. There are undeniable racial overtones in their scuffles but director/writer Majid Majidi tends to diffuse the tension with comedy and the results are amusing but watered down. Just about the only retribution Latif suffers is being relegated to the post of kitchen boy.
Their mutual antagonism comes to a head with the arrival of a mysterious Afghan boy who eventually supplants Latif in the kitchen and becomes the primary target of Latif's jealous wrath. When the boy turns out to be a girl, though, Latif's hostility turns into pity which then turns into love. He spends the rest of the movie acting as her guardian angel, saving her from one pitfall after another, and eventually giving her an entire month's wages so that she can return to her home in Afghanistan.
Hossein Abedini, who plays Latif, is a natural actor who can suggest the confusion of adolescence without making it feel mawkish or sentimental. Latif's sudden change of heart may be one of the movie's less plausible developments, but Mr. Abedini deserves credit for transforming this improbable rite of passage into a hypnotic series of ghost-like encounters. As he tries to track down the elusive girl (whom inspectors have expelled from the construction site), he meets a series of Afghan refugees, spanning age and gender, who mysteriously begin to disappear one by one. They could be hallucinations, as could be Latif's final encounter with the girl, whose real name we learn is also the movie's title, which translates to "rain." Without a single line of dialogue, her presence is ethereal but her face is the image that sticks with us the longest. It's a spare and simple face, devoid of ornament but possessing a profound sadness, and when she pulls the burka over it, we know that Latif has seen it for the last time.
Majid Majidi, whose previous films "Children of Heaven" and "Color of Paradise" were unabashed crowd-pleasers, demonstrates again his almost effortless ability to entertain his audience. "Baran" works like a short story, delivering its message in terse, rapid fire punches. And without much effort, it leaves you exhausted after a mere 98 minutes. Majidi, who won the directing award at Iran's Fajr Film Festival, is less of a polemic than his contemporaries, but "Baran" is his most politically attuned work to date, even if it deals with its subjects in oblique, almost poetic terms. Afghanistan, for its part, remains a potent off-screen presence, a beckoning force that can be felt but not understood.
Originally Published December 21, 2001
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