Dream Of Leaving - "Runner" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

In the poignant opening scene of Amir Naderi's film "The Runner," a ragged young boy standing at the edge of a harbor waves and shouts imploringly at the silhouette of an oil tanker slipping silently through the mist. The setting is the Iranian port city of Abadan. Amiro (Majid Niroumand), the film's subject, is a homeless 13-year-old who lives in the hulk of an abandoned ship and ekes out a living picking through garbage.

Variations of the scene recur several times in the 1985 Iranian film, which is at Film Forum 1. Amiro is as transfixed by airplanes as he is by ships and spends the few coins he is able to scrounge on aviation magazines that he cannot read. After taking himself to school where he begins learning the Farsi alphabet, he turns the letters into an incantation that he hurls to the sky with a wild, furious determination while standing on a rock surrounded by pounding surf.

"The Runner," which has been compared with Vittorio De Sica's "Shoeshine," Francois Truffaut's "400 Blows" and Hector Babenco's "Pixote," takes its title from a ritual that is another recurrent motif. Early in the film, Amiro falls in with a pack of slightly older boys who, despite the sweltering heat, like to run races on the railroad tracks, sometimes chasing freight trains that speed away just out of reach. These increasingly frantic and surreal contests become the film's central metaphor for the survival instinct and for a driving life force that one is fairly certain will sustain Amiro despite his disadvantages. In fact, the film, which was written by Mr. Naderi and Behrouz Gharibpour, was inspired by the director's childhood experiences.

Set over a period of several months in an indeterminate present, "The Runner" -- in many images and few words (with confusing English subtitles) -- follows Amiro's hand-to-mouth existence. From garbage scavenger he becomes a collector of floating bottles in the shark-infested harbor, an ice-water vendor, a shoeshine boy and a part-time student. A shrewd survivalist with an innate sense of justice and fair play, Amiro fights for what is rightfully his. When a man rides off on a bicycle without paying for his ice water, Amiro chases him, pulls him down and demands payment.

If "The Runner" is tentatively optimistic, it is also drenched in a mood of yearning lyricism. As Amiro gazes longingly into a hazy harbor sunset, the strains of Nat (King) Cole singing "Around the World" are barely audible. When his only friend departs to work on a ship, Amiro weeps. At moments like these, the film's portrayal of him as an utterly pure soul veers perilously close to sentimentality.

What keeps "The Runner" on track is the way it looks at the world through Amiro's eyes and finds beauty and wonder as well as squalor in Abadan's grimy sunsets, polluted harbor waters and dusty railroad depots. It is further anchored by the radiant performance of Majid Niroumand, who plays Amiro without a trace of self-pity.

Originally Published June 21, 1991

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