Children of Heaven (1997)

As an antidote to the American media, lately I’ve been spending my precious down time with films from the Middle East. Quick tangent: Long Pauses attracts an odd assortment of readers — undergraduates looking for “Benito Cereno” papers to steal, disenfranchised Christians seeking fellow travelers, and film buffs, mostly. For those of you not in the latter group, let me just say that, for the last decade or so, Iran has produced many of the world’s most remarkable films and filmmakers. Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, and Majid Majidi, to name just a few, are among a select group of active directors who consistently meld craftsmanship, beauty, honesty, and a vital social-political voice. For more info, check out my friend Acquarello’s invaluable site, Strictly Film School.

Majidi’s Children of Heaven is a sweet little film that I can’t help but compare to two of my all-time favorites: Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Like De Sica’s classic of Italian Neo-Realism, Children of Heaven concerns a hard-working father who wants only to provide for his wife and children, but who is trapped in a world that seems determined to frustrate him. Like Ray, Majidi tells his story from the low-angle perspective of the children, a boy, Ali, and his younger sister, Zahra. The plot turns on Ali’s having lost Zahra’s only pair of shoes and on their efforts to recover them, which are often pathetic but never overly sentimental. Majidi must surely have been thinking of Ray’s original Apu (Subir Bannerjee) when he cast Amir Farrokh Hashemian as Ali, for the two share that wide-eyed yearning on which the success of both films depends. (As a strange aside, both boys also remind me a great deal of my oldest nephew.)

Like his predecessors, Majidi shoots on location and employs non-professional actors, which lends the film an urgency often lacking in Western productions. But it’s also quite beautifully filmed, contrasting stunning images of Tehran’s superhighways, mansions, and high rises with its alleys, markets, and elementary schools. Children of Heaven would be a great rental for any of you who might otherwise be reluctant to enter the “Foreign Films” aisle. Most reviews in the popular press have described it as “heartwarming,” which it certainly is, and it also delivers a deliriously tense finale. While the film lacks the explicit political critique of something like Panahi’s The Circle (banned by Iranian officials) or Kiarostami’s Close-Up, it offers a wonderfully told story, and it also performs a service that is terribly important right now: Our hearts should be warmed to the people of the Middle East, the people who are (or who soon will be) hiding out under the devastation of our bombing campaigns.

(P.S. I realize that that last sentence smacks of stereotypical bleeding-heart liberalism. But, well, sometimes that’s a good thing.)