Childrenof Heaven directed byMajid Majidi
Childrenof Heaven wrings more suspense from its modest story and characters thanany recent foreign film I can recall. During the final sequence, I had knotsin my stomach, partly because the movie was coming together in thrillingly unexpectedways, thanks to the filmmaker's old-style craftsmanship?a rare thingin this era of MTV cinema?but mostly because it had made me care so deeplyabout these characters that I couldn't bear to think that things mightnot turn out well for them. Though it was made in Iran by writer-director MajidMajidi and is steeped in that nation's atmosphere and culture, I can'timagine anyone anywhere in the world being unable to relate to it.
The plot is so simple thatit could have come straight out of the Italian neorealist era. The heroes area couple of children, the boy Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian), who is eight, andhis kid sister Zahra (Bahareh Seddinqi), who looks to be about five. They areemigrant Turks living in Teheran, and their family is very poor. One day, Aliloses his sister's shoes (old pink topsiders with little bows) and is immediatelyplunged into a panic. He is terrified that his parents?especially his father?willfind out, so he swears Zahra to secrecy, and together they contrive a plan toshare Ali's tattered canvas sneakers. This arrangement is possible becauseZahra goes to school in the morning and Ali in the afternoon; they agree tomeet at a predetermined spot in a nearby alleyway each day, at which point Zahrawill give Ali back the sneakers she has borrowed for the morning, and Ali willgive her his shoes (ordinary slippers that appear to belong to the children'smother). Because Muslims remove their shoes before going indoors, Ali and Zahra'sparents see only bare feet and are none the wiser. The Checkpoint Charlie-styleexchange of the sneakers becomes the centerpoint of the children's schooldays. When Zahra's classes let out at midday, she sprints to the tradeoffspot to meet Ali. They switch shoes with a speed and dexterity that is bothfunny and profoundly moving. They could do it with their eyes closed. The wholeabsurd procedure eventually is accepted by both children as normal?as theirpenance for screwing up. Meanwhile, Ali and Zahra keep an eye peeled for theshoes, which they are convinced will turn up someplace, probably on the feetof another child. Like the daily alleyway exchange, the siblings' constantsuspicious lookout for pilfered footwear becomes second nature to them. Abouta third of the way into the film, you realize that little Zahra always seemsto be walking about with her head slightly inclined: She's looking forher shoes. Their worry over the consequencesof a lost pair of shoes is exaggerated, but not by much. This is a poor family?notmovie poor, but truly poor. The kids share a one-room apartment with their father(Amir Naji), a laborer, and their mother (Fereshteh Sarabandi), who is pregnant.It's a harsh existence, but Majidi, who grew up in a slum apartment withfour brothers, doesn't rub our nose in the family's poverty, or evenask us to be sympathetic. It's affectionate but clear-eyed. The littledetails are wonderful: the family's apparent obliviousness to the smallnessof their apartment; the shortwave radio the father listens to because he cannotafford a tv; the kids doing homework while seated on the bare floor. The director'sview of poverty is a humanist view that doesn't plead or condescend. Itsays, "Here is how the characters live," and then lets their circumstancesshape the plot. The tone is exactly right. It reminds you that when you'rea kid, no matter how you live, that's your definition of a "normal"life. Majidi understands thatin filmmaking, point of view is everything. If you get that right, the moviesells itself. And Majidi rarely steps wrong. He understands kids; he rememberswhat it was like to be one. Though the film jumps outside the children'sperspective now and again, for the most part it shows us the world from hipheight, encouraging us to think about events (and feel them) as if we were youngagain. Children are volcanic in their emotional responses; even little problemscan seem like the end the world. That's why Ali and Zahra keep the missingshoes a secret from their parents, lying to classmates and teachers to coverup the problem. Ali is constantly arriving at school late, narrowly evadingthe stern gaze of the principal (Kamal Mir-Karimi), who patrols the halls lookingfor stragglers, nervously tapping a long ruler against the open palm of hisfree hand. When Ali finally gets caught, and makes up a ridiculous lie to getout of it, the boy's sheer terror is palpable. If you've ever beencaught doing wrong by an authority figure and tried to wriggle out of it verbally?andfor many of us, that was childhood in a nutshell?the scene will triggersense-memory overload. In another terrific scene, Ali, who has been awardeda fancy pen for earning a good grade on a test, gives the prize to Zahra, partlybecause he feels guilty about losing her shoes, but mostly because he loveshis sister and enjoys being nice to her. Everything about the scene is exactlyright: the casual way Ali produces the pen, Zahra's unalloyed delight inaccepting it, Ali's somewhat subdued reaction to her delight. (Boys arefunny. They always have to be so cool.) The missing shoes dominatethe siblings' waking lives. Is their obsession credible? Of course not.Rationally, we realize no family is so poor that it cannot acquire one morepair of cheap sneakers; if shoes are desperately needed, parents find a wayof making it happen, even if it means buying them used, selling other possessionsto pay for them, borrowing a pair from another family or even stealing them.Parents sacrifice. That's what they do; it's what they are supposedto do. And most humane, mature, mentally healthy parents wouldn't makea child's life hell because he lost a pair of shoes. Punishment might beinflicted, sure, but it would be leavened somewhat by the knowledge that thechild is already wracked with guilt over what happened. But Ali and Zahra can'tunderstand such things. They love and respect their parents. They realize howhard they work to provide for the family and wouldn't dream of burdeningthem with such a thing. For Ali and Zahra?especially Ali, who idolizeshis dad?the loss of the shoes is an insult against his father's love."You're not a kid anymore," the father tells Ali early in thefilm. "You're almost nine years old. When I was nine, I was helpingmy father." Ali, who lost the shoes mere hours before this casual guilt-inducingstatement, reacts as if stricken. Like Spielberg in top formor, in an earlier era, Truffaut and De Sica, Majidi articulates this simpleplotline so adeptly that Children of Heaven acquires an almost overpoweringnarrative drive. You stop thinking about the film as a film and just experienceit. The distance between the audience and the screen vanishes; it's likethe movie is happening to you. The suspense conjured by simple actionsgone awry is amazing; Majidi frames the shots so expertly, always choosing theright angle and holding the image just long enough to make his point, that you'recarried along in a rush of adrenaline. There's one sequence near the middlewhere Zahra accidentally loses one of the sneakers in a storm drain. The currentwhisks the shoe along just fast enough so that the little girl can't getfar enough ahead of it to bend down and catch it. She keeps stopping and reachinginto the water, but she's always a second too late. After a minute of this,she's panting and crying?a little bundle of pure desperation. Theimages are uninflected, and that's what makes them powerful. Majidi doesn'tload the sequence down with sappy music, as Spielberg or Truffaut have beenknown to do (the score, by Kievan Jahan-shahi, is emotionally engaged but sensible,like the movie). Nor does the filmmaker do anything fancy with the camera, likedolly ostentatiously after Zahra or tilt the frame to convey disorientation.Yet he produces the most thrilling action sequence in years. You feel the suspenseas keenly as if Zahra herself were being whisked downstream. Majidi's concentrationon the children, the neighborhood and the specter of the vanished shoes is sofocused and complete, and so effective, that he probably didn't need togo beyond it. Excellence is a rare thing in cinema these days; if he'dstopped with the children and their quest, his achievement still would be substantial.But he also gives us little grace notes that are apropos of nothing and enrichthe movie's vision for precisely that reason. In a scene near the middle,where the children visit a mosque during services, hoping to locate the missingshoes in the pile outside the prayer hall, Majidi cuts to the children'sfather in the kitchen of the mosque, preparing sugar for the faithful to putin their tea. He is singing along with the prayer, and the sound of all thosevoices raised together in faith moves him so deeply that he nearly weeps. Thescene lasts about 30 seconds and is unconnected to the plot; it's theresimply to establish that the father?and his family, and his community?isprofoundly religious, and that faith, rather than being a special, circumscribedthing, is just another strand in the tapestry of their daily lives. It'sa surprising and gratifying moment that reminds us that in American films wealmost never see people of faith worshipping without editorial comment. In mostmainstream films, God isn't addressed at all, and when the topic does comeup, the character whose presence introduces it is defined completely by hisor her piety; in other words, that character isn't a character who happensto be religious, but "the religious character." Up to this point,you'd never guess that the father was a religious man because he doesn'tmake a big deal about it. That's why the scene is revelatory: because theman doesn't make a big deal about it. Truly religious people never do. Majidi's finest momentas a filmmaker comes in an extended sequence where Ali hitches a ride on hisfather's bicycle and travels to northern Teheran to seek gardening workfrom the rich native Iranians who live in mansions there. The two little peopleon their bicycle pedaling furiously (shades of De Sica) are contrasted, subtly,with the roar of traffic on the roads they travel. As they ride, the relativeshabbiness and intimacy of their slum neighborhood, with its narrow streetsand very old buildings, is set against the vast highways and ice cube-tray office buildings of modern, industrialized Teheran. Like the prayer scene, this montageis incidental and yet revelatory. It shames the classless fantasyland mentalityof Hollywood films, which rarely mention the gap between haves and have-nots,much less detail how class difference can be seen in the geography of a changingcity. There's something poetic,almost heroic, in the matter-of-fact shots of Ali and his father going door-to-doortrying to rustle up a little honest work. They keep getting turned away, butthe film doesn't ask us to feel sorry for them. They grow tired and exasperatedas the day grows long and the sun dips low behind the trees, but the film stilldoesn't ask us to feel sorry for them. Majidi just asks that we look atthese characters and their situation and understand that this is how the worldworks?in Iran, in America, anyplace. Things are always tough for the poor,but they get by. Ali, Zahra and their parents are shielded by their mutual loveand respect; it is a firewall that insulates them against the cruelties of fate.Of all the truths Children of Heaven expresses, none is larger or moreimportant than this: No matter what our circumstance, if we have family, weare protected. The love of our family is the god of small things.