Children of Heaven
directed by Majid Majidi
Children of Heaven wrings more suspense from its modest story and characters than any recent foreign film I can recall. During the final sequence, I had knots in my stomach, partly because the movie was coming together in thrillingly unexpected ways, thanks to the filmmaker’s old-style craftsmanship–a rare thing in this era of MTV cinema–but mostly because it had made me care so deeply about these characters that I couldn’t bear to think that things might not turn out well for them. Though it was made in Iran by writer-director Majid Majidi and is steeped in that nation’s atmosphere and culture, I can’t imagine anyone anywhere in the world being unable to relate to it.
The plot is so simple that it could have come straight out of the Italian neorealist era. The heroes are a couple of children, the boy Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian), who is eight, and his kid sister Zahra (Bahareh Seddinqi), who looks to be about five. They are emigrant Turks living in Teheran, and their family is very poor. One day, Ali loses his sister’s shoes (old pink topsiders with little bows) and is immediately plunged into a panic. He is terrified that his parents–especially his father–will find out, so he swears Zahra to secrecy, and together they contrive a plan to share Ali’s tattered canvas sneakers. This arrangement is possible because Zahra goes to school in the morning and Ali in the afternoon; they agree to meet at a predetermined spot in a nearby alleyway each day, at which point Zahra will give Ali back the sneakers she has borrowed for the morning, and Ali will give her his shoes (ordinary slippers that appear to belong to the children’s mother). Because Muslims remove their shoes before going indoors, Ali and Zahra’s parents see only bare feet and are none the wiser.
The Checkpoint Charlie-style exchange of the sneakers becomes the centerpoint of the children’s school days. When Zahra’s classes let out at midday, she sprints to the tradeoff spot to meet Ali. They switch shoes with a speed and dexterity that is both funny and profoundly moving. They could do it with their eyes closed. The whole absurd procedure eventually is accepted by both children as normal–as their penance for screwing up. Meanwhile, Ali and Zahra keep an eye peeled for the shoes, which they are convinced will turn up someplace, probably on the feet of another child. Like the daily alleyway exchange, the siblings’ constant suspicious lookout for pilfered footwear becomes second nature to them. About a third of the way into the film, you realize that little Zahra always seems to be walking about with her head slightly inclined: She’s looking for her shoes.
Their worry over the consequences of a lost pair of shoes is exaggerated, but not by much. This is a poor family–not movie 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 with four brothers, doesn’t rub our nose in the family’s poverty, or even ask us to be sympathetic. It’s affectionate but clear-eyed. The little details are wonderful: the family’s apparent obliviousness to the smallness of their apartment; the shortwave radio the father listens to because he cannot afford a tv; the kids doing homework while seated on the bare floor. The director’s view of poverty is a humanist view that doesn’t plead or condescend. It says, “Here is how the characters live,” and then lets their circumstances shape the plot. The tone is exactly right. It reminds you that when you’re a kid, no matter how you live, that’s your definition of a “normal” life.
Majidi understands that in filmmaking, point of view is everything. If you get that right, the movie sells itself. And Majidi rarely steps wrong. He understands kids; he remembers what it was like to be one. Though the film jumps outside the children’s perspective now and again, for the most part it shows us the world from hip height, encouraging us to think about events (and feel them) as if we were young again. Children are volcanic in their emotional responses; even little problems can seem like the end the world. That’s why Ali and Zahra keep the missing shoes a secret from their parents, lying to classmates and teachers to cover up the problem. Ali is constantly arriving at school late, narrowly evading the stern gaze of the principal (Kamal Mir-Karimi), who patrols the halls looking for stragglers, nervously tapping a long ruler against the open palm of his free hand. When Ali finally gets caught, and makes up a ridiculous lie to get out of it, the boy’s sheer terror is palpable. If you’ve ever been caught doing wrong by an authority figure and tried to wriggle out of it verbally–and for many of us, that was childhood in a nutshell–the scene will trigger sense-memory overload. In another terrific scene, Ali, who has been awarded a fancy pen for earning a good grade on a test, gives the prize to Zahra, partly because he feels guilty about losing her shoes, but mostly because he loves his sister and enjoys being nice to her. Everything about the scene is exactly right: the casual way Ali produces the pen, Zahra’s unalloyed delight in accepting it, Ali’s somewhat subdued reaction to her delight. (Boys are funny. They always have to be so cool.)
The missing shoes dominate the siblings’ waking lives. Is their obsession credible? Of course not. Rationally, we realize no family is so poor that it cannot acquire one more pair of cheap sneakers; if shoes are desperately needed, parents find a way of making it happen, even if it means buying them used, selling other possessions to 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 supposed to do. And most humane, mature, mentally healthy parents wouldn’t make a child’s life hell because he lost a pair of shoes. Punishment might be inflicted, sure, but it would be leavened somewhat by the knowledge that the child is already wracked with guilt over what happened. But Ali and Zahra can’t understand such things. They love and respect their parents. They realize how hard they work to provide for the family and wouldn’t dream of burdening them with such a thing. For Ali and Zahra–especially Ali, who idolizes his 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 the film. “You’re almost nine years old. When I was nine, I was helping my father.” Ali, who lost the shoes mere hours before this casual guilt-inducing statement, reacts as if stricken.
Like Spielberg in top form or, in an earlier era, Truffaut and De Sica, Majidi articulates this simple plotline so adeptly that Children of Heaven acquires an almost overpowering narrative drive. You stop thinking about the film as a film and just experience it. The distance between the audience and the screen vanishes; it’s like the movie is happening to you. The suspense conjured by simple actions gone awry is amazing; Majidi frames the shots so expertly, always choosing the right angle and holding the image just long enough to make his point, that you’re carried along in a rush of adrenaline. There’s one sequence near the middle where Zahra accidentally loses one of the sneakers in a storm drain. The current whisks the shoe along just fast enough so that the little girl can’t get far enough ahead of it to bend down and catch it. She keeps stopping and reaching into 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. The images are uninflected, and that’s what makes them powerful. Majidi doesn’t load the sequence down with sappy music, as Spielberg or Truffaut have been known 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, like dolly ostentatiously after Zahra or tilt the frame to convey disorientation. Yet he produces the most thrilling action sequence in years. You feel the suspense as keenly as if Zahra herself were being whisked downstream.
Majidi’s concentration on the children, the neighborhood and the specter of the vanished shoes is so focused and complete, and so effective, that he probably didn’t need to go beyond it. Excellence is a rare thing in cinema these days; if he’d stopped 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 enrich the 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 missing shoes in the pile outside the prayer hall, Majidi cuts to the children’s father in the kitchen of the mosque, preparing sugar for the faithful to put in their tea. He is singing along with the prayer, and the sound of all those voices raised together in faith moves him so deeply that he nearly weeps. The scene lasts about 30 seconds and is unconnected to the plot; it’s there simply to establish that the father–and his family, and his community–is profoundly religious, and that faith, rather than being a special, circumscribed thing, is just another strand in the tapestry of their daily lives. It’s a surprising and gratifying moment that reminds us that in American films we almost never see people of faith worshipping without editorial comment. In most mainstream films, God isn’t addressed at all, and when the topic does come up, the character whose presence introduces it is defined completely by his or her piety; in other words, that character isn’t a character who happens to be religious, but “the religious character.” Up to this point, you’d never guess that the father was a religious man because he doesn’t make a big deal about it. That’s why the scene is revelatory: because the man doesn’t make a big deal about it. Truly religious people never do.
Majidi’s finest moment as a filmmaker comes in an extended sequence where Ali hitches a ride on his father’s bicycle and travels to northern Teheran to seek gardening work from the rich native Iranians who live in mansions there. The two little people on 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 relative shabbiness and intimacy of their slum neighborhood, with its narrow streets and very old buildings, is set against the vast highways and ice cube-tray office
buildings of modern, industrialized Teheran. Like the prayer scene, this montage is incidental and yet revelatory. It shames the classless fantasyland mentality of 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 changing city.
There’s something poetic, almost heroic, in the matter-of-fact shots of Ali and his father going door-to-door trying to rustle up a little honest work. They keep getting turned away, but the film doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for them. They grow tired and exasperated as the day grows long and the sun dips low behind the trees, but the film still doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for them. Majidi just asks that we look at these characters and their situation and understand that this is how the world works–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 love and 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 more important than this: No matter what our circumstance, if we have family, we are protected. The love of our family is the god of small things.