We don't normally think of the pre-high school set as an ideal audience for foreign films, but don't tell that to Roger Ebert. Ebert, who grew up in Champaign, Ill., and attended the University of Illinois there, has recently started an annual film festival as a gift to his hometown. It's called the Overlooked Film Festival. The idea is to provide a second look at movies that Ebert thinks deserved more attention than they received on first release, and he invites filmmakers and critics to come up and participate in discussions about chosen films. Knowing my interest in Iranian cinema, he invited me up to talk about Children of Heaven.
I must admit I experienced a moment of skepticism when I realized that Majidi's film was serving as the festival's free family matinee, and that most of the audience that filled Champaign's 1,500-seat Virginia Theater was kids, ages roughly 8 to 14. Ebert got up before the show and explained what subtitles were and why they are used. He told kids with siblings too young to read that it was okay to read or explain the subtitles to them--just not too loudly. As improbable as all of this may sound, the kids of Champaign-Urbana had absolutely no problem with what, for most, was undoubtedly their first subtitled film. They were enraptured throughout Children of Heaven, erupting in cheers at the end when the film's poor young hero wins the foot race that he hopes will bring him a pair of shoes that he can give to his sister.
After the screening, Ebert and I took the stage for a short discussion about Iranian film, and then he invited kids in the audience to come up and ask questions of us. Somewhere between 20 and 30 accepted the invitation, and I was amazed at the seriousness and astuteness of their questions. I wasn't always the one who supplied the best answers. When one boy asked what we thought the director meant to convey, Ebert said, "Love--I think he wanted too show you something about the love in this family and this community." And when a girl asked why the film's final shot shows the hero's blistered feet being surrounded by gold fish in a pond, Ebert's wife Chaz, who helped stage-manage the Q & A, offered, "Someone said to me, it's like God is kissing the boy's feet through the gold fish."
Both answers, I think, are total bull's-eyes. But it gives you pause, doesn't it? When did foreign films become a forum for talking about love of family and community or God's mercy? The bastion of subtitled cinema is far too sophisticated and intellectual for such simple matters, is it not?
Well, don't tell the Iranians. One of the most startling things about their cinema is how it has managed to do an end run around both flanks of American cinema, turning out movies that are more sophisticated/intellectual and more simple/emotional than ours. Of course, it's not always the same Iranian films that do all of this, and that's led to a certain confusion among American critics.
Iran first became known internationally for films by directors such as Abbas Kiarostami (whose latest, The Wind Will Carry Us, will open in the United States in late July) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose work started out mostly in the intellectual vein and grew more that way as it went along. Indeed, Kiarostami, who was recently voted "most important filmmaker of the 1990s" in a poll of American critics, is seen as the natural heir of Bergman, Antonioni and Godard. Thus when Majid Majidi came along with his open-hearted, patently crowd-pleasing films about kids--Children of Heaven won awards all over the world, and became Iran's first-ever Oscar nominee--he was all too easily seen as a derivative parvenu using sentimentality to cash in on the more serious work done by better filmmakers.
I admit to harboring such doubts myself, before being converted by the strength of Majidi's conviction and by reactions like the one I saw in Champaign. At the most essential level, the Iranian cinema has been offering the world a lesson in the spiritual purposes of art, and, in that regard, Kiarostami and Majidi deserve to be seen as two sides of the same coin. Surface appearances aside, they have far more in common with each other than they do with most non-Iranian filmmakers. In fact, the main thing separating them may be a simple matter of genre. Where Kiarostami has refreshed the wilting genre of the art film, Majidi has reclaimed a form of passionately direct melodrama that harkens back as far as D.W. Griffith.
The Color of Paradise starts out closely observing a school for the blind in which the blind are played by kids who really are. (Is this "exploitative"? On the contrary, Majidi assumes that you'll grasp that any discomfort comes from your own sense of privilege.) On the day the term ends, all the other children's parents come to pick them up, but little Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani, whose performance is remarkable) is left sitting on an outdoor bench unclaimed. Hearing a baby bird that's fallen in the grass nearby, he scoops it up and, with considerable difficulty, climbs a tree and delivers it back into the safety of its nest. You can't imagine an American filmmaker risking so much on a metaphor and the chance of emotional overkill.
Yet this scene clears the way for Majidi's straight-to-the-heart approach from then on. The film's dramatic crux is that Mohammad is unwanted by his dour, widowed father Hashem (Hossein Majtub), not, apparently, because he's an embarrassment or burden but because he's a constant reminder of his father's misfortune. Refused by the school when he asks to leave the boy there, Hashem grudgingly takes him back to their rugged home in the mountains, where Mohammad at least has the comforts of nature and the love of his Granny (Salime Feizi) and two sisters. But these don't assuage the paternal disquiet. When Hashem spies the chance to marry a woman better off than himself, he's eager to apprentice Mohammad off to a blind woodcarver. This bitter displacement brings the boy to the depths of his misery, but also leads, eventually, to a climactic ordeal that places father and son alike at the mercy of rampaging nature.
Nature, in fact, is such a constant (if highly mercurial) presence in the film that it might almost be considered a separate character. Certainly one of Majidi's most ingenious and effective devices is the way he uses Mohammad's blindness to stress the beauty and sensual allure of nature. Most movies that center on blind people treat blindness as a factor that separates/connects the characters. Majidi, instead, uses it to connect the human realm to its natural surroundings. We become Mohammad's eyes, comprehending the surrounding beauty that he "sees" only through his other senses. (It goes without saying that his father's blindness to this same beauty is the mark of his moral deficiency.) Yet what comprises this beauty, finally? What makes us see the world as beautiful rather than hideous? It's surely not just Mohammad Davoodi's lush cinematography combined with Iran's landscapes, is it?
The Color of Paradise, which was called The Color of God in Iran, can be seen as Majidi's first explicitly religious film, a factor which makes it most notable in both his career and the context of recent Iranian cinema. In fact, this element doesn't become literally explicit until the film's final shot, but the religious spirit and direction is constant up until then. And it's in this regard that the film's view of nature is really crucial. Majidi's scrupulously phrased drama makes it plain that nature is not God. (Implying otherwise indeed would constitute the preeminent heresy in Islam, pantheism, which Mohsen Makhmalbaf veers perilously close to in his exquisite, provocative Gabbeh.) Rather, nature, like the human heart, functions as a mirror in which the image--the immaterial meaning--comes from God. This sense of the divine behind the visible, the apparent, is really what animates the film. And I think it's what appeals at the deepest level to many moviegoers who might explain their attraction simply in terms of the film's surface charms and universal emotions.
Iranians are apt to smile at the term "Judeo-Christian," which lops the Islamic branch off a tripartite monotheistic tradition that they call "Abrahamian." As with many other Iranian art works and films, including several of Kiarostami's, The Color of Paradise implicitly evokes the story of Abraham and Isaac. Like that ancient paradigm, Majidi's film is about a father who's willing to sacrifice his son, and a son who survives solely--make no mistake--due to divine intervention. But of course there's another scenario being played out here as well: one of artistic fathers and sons.
In the genealogy of Iranian cinema, Kiarostami represents the generation of pre-revolutionary, mostly (or nominally) secular directors, while Makhmalbaf, the first major filmmaker to emerge after the revolution, started out as an Islamic fundamentalist ideologue/artist and later converted to freethinking and auteurist art cinema. Majidi is something else again. Though he began working alongside Makhmalbaf-the-fundamentalist, and in fact acted in a couple of his early films, he has repudiated neither cinema "for the masses" nor his Islamic beliefs. Rather, he's gradually expanded his understanding of both. In effect, his cinema--unlike that of other famous Iranians--aims not at art-house elites and intellectuals, but at moviegoers the world over. And his ultimate message, you might say, is the greatness not of the auteur, but of the Auteur.
His rise to prominence, I have come to think, is a healthy, perhaps necessary thing. The West has misconstrued much about Iranian cinema even as it has embraced it, especially regarding the spiritual/philosophical thinking that undergirds so much of Iranian art. Majidi's work puts some of that thinking clearly on the table while also keeping Iranian cinema out of the grasp of the pointyheads. The best chance for any "foreign" cinema to survive may well lie in just such a maneuver--or, should I say, miracle?