The Color of Paradise The Color of Paradise directed …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

While I’m
not in the camp of the Majidi detractors, I understand where their animus comes
from. If you’ve seen a fair number of Iranian films, it’s easy to
view Majidi’s as transparently derivative and calculatedly commercial,
offering simplistic pieties on subjects that others have probed with real subtlety
and sophistication. Where late-80s, child-centered masterpieces like Naderi’s
The Runner, Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger and Kiarostami’s
Where Is the Friend’s House? were brilliant and idiosyncratic enough
to launch the postrevolutionary Iranian cinema from total obscurity to the beginnings
of its current international renown, Majidi’s movies can seem facile and
formulaic by comparison, cinematic parvenus trying to elbow their way into Oscar
gold and critical glory.

Yet that view
is, I think, itself a bit too simplistic. What’s kept me from it has been
the experience of watching and discussing his films with various sorts of American
moviegoers, who invariably seem extraordinarily engrossed and often deeply moved
by what they see. Of course, part of that may be owed to the viewers’ prior
unfamiliarity with the wiles of Iranian cinema. Another part may come from Majidi’s
direct attack on the heartstrings, a goal that doesn’t require incredible
dexterity in films that involve kids. But I’ve come to think there’s
something deeper involved, too, a philosophic stratum that not only helps account
for the films’ emotional power but also puts them in basic alignment with
other Iranian films that are generally considered much different.

This commonality
is worth noting at the moment because The Color of Paradise, which opens
this week, will inevitably be compared to Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind
Will Carry Us
, a June arrival. The two films, which had their North American
premieres at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, are nominal opposites in
many ways–the former direct and emotional, the latter arcane and cerebral–and
critics will be tempted, as critics often are, to vaunt one at the expense of
the other. That’s unfortunate. Considering that recent decade’s-end
critics polls effectively elevated Kiarostami to the unenviable status of World’s
Most Overpraised Director (which doesn’t mean that he’s not great),
the tendency to pit the filmmakers against each other can only obscure more
than it reveals. Indeed, American critics who want to understand Kiarostami
better could learn the most by putting aside auteurist exceptionalism and looking
closely at what he shares with Majidi–and vice versa.

The Color
of Paradise
and The Wind Will Carry Us both envision a world divided
between its obvious surfaces and the hidden forces that govern it, a split that
entails age-old pain and injustices yet also implies the possibility of transcendence
(where will the wind carry us, if not to paradise?). Besides their comparably
lavish uses of wild natural landscapes in northern Iran, both films hinge on
an evocative metaphor-cum-sensory trope–occluded vision. In Kiarostami’s
film, many characters are left out of the camera’s field of vision. In
Majidi’s, the main character is blind. Both films leave to the viewer the
challenge of really seeing; the main difference between them lies not
in what they imply is to be seen, but in the fact that Kiarostami shrouds his
meaning in Antonioniesque ambiguity while Majidi conveys his with Spielbergian

As that contrast
might suggest, the Iranian cinema’s recent strength has involved pumping
new life into both European-style art films and classic Hollywood genre conventions.
Naturally, the former effort was the first to grab attention at European festivals
and among Euro-attuned critics. But the revitalization of genre has been just
as important in giving Iranian films a solid popular base on home ground, just
as it may well put across the Iranian difference to American audiences
who’ll never bother with Iran’s artier fare.

And if you’re
out to resuscitate genre, why not go the whole melodramatic hog and make a film
about a poor, kindhearted blind boy who is unloved even by his own father? At
the very least, Majidi must be credited with the sheer nerve of his enterprise,
which no doubt is one thing that appeals to many American filmgoers. Our own
movies long ago lost their ability to address such nakedly sentimental subjects
directly; like so much of our culture, they’ve become ironic and wary of
manipulation–justifiably so, perhaps. Majidi starts out from the radical
premise that reclaiming crucial portions of the cinema’s lost innocence
may take nothing more (or less) than a complete, unguarded sincerity from both
filmmaker and viewer. Is this pure naivete on his part, or something purer still?

Recalling that
great cornerstone of Iran’s poetic cinema, Forugh Farrokhzhad’s 1962
leper-colony short The House Is Black, The Color of Paradise starts
out closely observing a school for the blind in which the handicapped kids really
are. 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 Mahjub), 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. And 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, which is the single factor
that 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 constitutes what may be the preeminent
heresy in Islam, pantheism, which Mohsen Makhmalbaf veers perilously close to
in his exquisite, provocative Gabbeh). Rather, nature, like the human
heart, is as a mirror in which the image–the immaterial meaning: the beauty
or terror–comes from God. This sense of the divine behind the visible,
the manifest, 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."
Like many other Iranian artworks 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 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 prerevolutionary,
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 arthouse elites and intellectuals,
but at moviegoers the world over. And his ultimate message, you might say, isn’t
the greatness 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 appropriated
it, especially as regards the religious/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 ultimately lies
in just such a maneuver–or, should I say, miracle?

Another fascinating
Iranian film that similarly depends on sheer conviction and the resuscitation
of genre plays this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Modern
Art as part of the 2000 New Films/New Directors series. Directed by Tahmineh
Milani, Iran’s most outspoken female director, Two Women was a huge
hit in Iran last year, quite obviously because it’s such an entertainingly
in-your-face feminist polemic, one that flames patriarchal oppression unstintingly
and ferociously for an hour and a half. Featuring a brilliant performance by
actress Niki Karimi (Iran’s leading female star), Milani’s high-octane,
high-dudgeon melodrama is due to open commercially this summer; I’ll reserve
further comment till then, while highly recommending its MOMA debut.