For a Pair of Sneakers, Longing, Lies and a Plan - "Children of Heaven" Review
By Janet Maslin The New York Times
The young hero of Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven" is played by Mir Farrokh Hashemian, a desolate-looking boy with huge brown eyes and a way of sending tears suddenly rolling down his cheeks. Those tears well up with some regularity during this film about 9-year-old Ali, his younger sister Zahra (Bahareh Sedighi) and their scheme for sharing a pair of his tattered sneakers. The children want to hide the fact that Zahra's shoes have been lost because this will be a hardship for their parents. The family's carefully detailed poverty, which reflects the filmmaker's own childhood experience, colors everything that happens in this story.
Events in the film are seen through the children's ingenuous eyes, as is so often and artfully the case in Iranian films. (A child's-eye view is, among other things, helpful in circumventing Government censors.) But in the more honest, less manipulative films that this one resembles -- especially the graceful work of Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon," "The Mirror") -- what the young characters observe is liable to be more surprising than it is here. In "Children of Heaven," life is sweet despite countless hardships, and no reality beyond the economic intrudes upon a fairy tale atmosphere. Only through heavy-handed emphasis does the quest for new sneakers take on any greater meaning.
In "Children of Heaven," life in Tehran is documented in everyday detail, from the less desirable potatoes available to Ali's family to the way a woolen garment is carefully unraveled so it can be knitted into something else. Eking out a living is especially tough for a family of Turkish origin living in the southern part of the city, a neighborhood duly contrasted with a wealthy area in the north.
One of the film's most elaborate episodes finds Ali and his father (Amir Naji) undertaking a punishing bike ride so that the father can seek gardening work among Tehran's rich. It's typical of Mr. Majidi's reliance on the expected that this journey of hope ends in frustration. And that a lonely rich child materializes out of nowhere, eager to make Ali his instant best friend.
The film's two young stars are as guileless as possible, even when the film contrives to turn the shoe issue into its main dramatic focus. Ali and Zahra meet secretly in the middle of each school day to pass along the sneakers, but that proves to be no solution. Zahra is hampered by ill-fitting shoes at the rigorous girls' school that she attends. (The film is a production of Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, so all school scenes look beneficial and wholesome.) And Ali, against all odds, determines to run a long-distance race and win the third-place prize of running shoes for Zahra. Not since Rocky left the boxing ring has a sporting contest been filmed as momentously as this school race.
"Children of Heaven" does provide a kindly, enveloping sense of Iranian life and customs, from the way the family prepares sugar cubes to be served at a mosque to the way Zahra helps care for elderly neighbors. These moments come more easily to Mr. Majidi than his studiously bittersweet ending for what is, despite its surface bleakness, an essentially sunny story.
Originally Published January 22, 1999
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