"Children of Heaven" Review

By Edwin Jahiel Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Iranian cinema became known around the mid-1960s. In 1979, the fall of the Shah and the takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime made the country into a theocracy with many restrictions and severe censorship. During the Khomeini decade, cinema declined in numbers, quality and scope.

With the death of Khomeini and a (very relative) "liberalization," good filmmaking picked up. Several directors --notably Abbas Kiarostami --became world figures, not in the entertainment-oriented, subtitles-loathing USA, but in Europe and its festivals. Censorship however, though somewhat relaxed, is still going strong in Iran.

Iranian movies have a special niche from the Shah's days on: films for and/or about children. An Iranian researcher preparing a video documentary interviewed several filmmakers on such movies. Other than the expected reasons ("kids are our future" etc.) a major stated or subsumed factor was those films are "safer" and face reduced censorship. As I construe this, many kid pics can also be an alibi for hinting at negative social and other conditions.

Before several autocratic regimes dissolved, the device of circumventing the censors via indirection was thriving in many countries. In Franco's Spain or Communist Poland and Czechoslovakia, seemingly non-political subjects and characters used, in fact "invisible" allusions through symbols, metaphors, humor or irony, to make their critical points. The work of many filmmakers was enriched and refined by necessary subtleties. Many movies of this kind were among the best of national productions.

"Children of Heaven" is about two kids, Ali, 9, and his younger sister Zahra, and about a pair of sneakers, Zahra's only shoes. Their working-class family is dirt poor --but honest, of course. It lacks most basic necessities and is hounded by their landlord for overdue rent. In their home and on the streets, we get telling views of how the other half lives, more probably the other nine-tenths.

Even the gift of a ballpoint pen takes on large dimensions. I couldn't help wondering what one of the household's Persian rugs might fetch in the West, and perhaps keep the group in comfort for a long time.

During one of his many errands, Ali has Zahra's pitiful sneakers repaired by a cobbler. Within minutes these get mistakenly picked up by a blind trash man. Returning home, the terribly upset Ali is greeted by Zahra's enchanting smile--before, that is, he tells her the awful truth. Zahra will smile just twice again in the course of the hour-and-a-half movie.

The siblings say nothing of the loss to their parents since the family is too poor to afford new shoes. I also suppose that Iranian youngsters, unlike those of most western countries, have a traditional respect of their seniors--and respect often goes hand in hand with fear of being the bearer of bad news.

In their predicament, the siblings decide to share Ali's own (and only) pair of sneakers when the children go to their respective schools. Zahra's school is in the morning, Ali's in the afternoon, so there's a kind of relay race as she passes on the sneakers to her impatiently waiting brother. Times don't dovetail precisely, so the boy gets to school just minutes late, is caught three times by the strict but kind (as we later see) principal. Why Ali doesn't give the man his perfectly good excuse baffles me. Is Iran so tight-lipped before authority?

The schoolchildren are so nicely disciplined and well-mannered in their shabby classrooms that it makes American schools look like high-tech infernos. Yet my Western eyes were depressed by the identically garbed female pupils in dark pants and blouses and huge white head scarves.

Complications and suspense follow. Zahra sees her old shoes being worn by a classmate. Father gets on his rickety old bicycle with Ali, to seek gardening jobs for the rich. They cross a Tehran that's beyond their depressed areas. It's a revelation, another world, a modern city with wide road, tree-lined avenues, tall buildings, consumer advertising.

Reaching a beautiful residential neighborhood, they are in a fairyland of clean, quiet, empty streets totally walled palatial villas with gardens, intercoms from the gate door to the house, and at times guard dogs. (Read: splendid but dehumanized)

The points made by the contrasts are obvious. Disembodied refusals are heard on the intercoms. The father, a terrible, tongue-tied salesman, is rescued by Ali's making the proposals. Papa gets new respect for his son as he is hired by a nice old grandfather who pays him handsomely. (Read: wealthy people do have a heart). Ali plays with the grandson. (Read: kids are kids, with no social distinctions. Read also: poor little rich boys are bored and isolated, as in a number of Hollywood pictures).

Once the job is done, the pair leave in high spirits. You sense that something bad is going to happen. It does, when the bike's brakes don't work. It is not a serious accident but financially the poor people are back to square one.

At the boys school, the gym teacher had announced an inter-school competition of long distance running, four kilometers. The first prize is two weeks in a holiday camp, a dream for have-not students. Ali, preoccupied with his troubles and bad shoes did not sign up, but discovering that third prize is a pair of sneakers, he begs tearfully to enter the race. The teacher relents.

In an American film, the boy would have won not just third place but first. I won't say any more. The hard race is well and suspensefully filmed, the movie's conclusion is very good, without a neat wrap-up --a big plus.

Acting is good, kids and adults are "real." Among the grownups are several instances of kindness. The style of COH mixes the documentary and the dramatic, is clearly (and by the director's admission) derived from Italian neorealist films, notably De Sica's classic The Bicycle Thief (1948) and certain other European movies on poverty.

In fact, a new Majidi movie ( all I know is that it is a "comedy-documentary") made in Iran, produced by Kevin Costner and Jim Wilson, was announced for February 1999. Its title : The Bicycle Thief. I have no news of it. Perhaps its U.S. release was postponed because a re-release of De Sica's The Bicycle Thief has been playing recently in a few U.S. locations.

COH was a major hit in Iran and a 1999 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. It is a good picture, although a number of tricks, plot devices, obvious constructions, coincidences (note the blind man and the girl with Zahra's shoes) and manipulations, all for a good cause no doubt, will be sensed by the viewers. Try as he may, writer-director Majidi cannot even approximate the starkness of De Sica's tone. The Italian film was in black and white and in wet wintry weather, while the colors and sunshine of COH act as a small palliative to the characters' travails.

The category "Children's Films" may give the false impression that this is a Disneyfied movie. No, it is for adults, and for young ones who are able to read the subtitles on the screen.

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