CHILDREN OF HEAVEN (Majid Majidi, 1997)

While it is annoying that Iranian films are so often about children because (politically) they dare not be about anyone else, some of these child-centered films have charm and appeal. Majid Majidi’s Bacheha-Ye aseman is vivid as well as appealing for at least half its length; it does peter out, though, for two reasons: it is tied to a plot (which will sink almost anything); first-grader Zahra, who is adorable, is far more endearing than Ali, her nine-year-old brother, to whom the plot eventually gravitates.
     The siblings live with their parents in the old, poor part of Tehran. At market, on an errand for their mother, Ali loses his sister’s only pair of shoes, which he picked up, repaired, from the shoemaker. He convinces Zahra they should not concern their parents with this; instead, Zahra will wear his sneakers to school and then rush to return them to him so that he can attend class. In a lovely passage, Zahra tries retrieving one of the shoes from the barriered gutter into which it has slipped off, the water continually carrying it just out of her small reach. Here is an exquisite encapsulation of childhood anxiety, effort and defeat—although a couple of adults do retrieve it, and Ali makes it to school late and with one soaked sneaker.
     Perhaps Zahra believes that the pair of identical shoes that a schoolmate is wearing is in fact hers. This other girl lives in the new, rich part of Tehran. Zahra, following her home, discovers that the child’s father is blind, that is, that everyone has his or her own burden. It’s another lovely moment, so long as you don’t think too hard about it. After all, Majidi manipulates this recognition from the tot by coaching and coaxing her, and by editing footage; is it really possible, then, that anyone as young as Zahra could claim such sudden awareness?
     Ali enters a race to win the third-place prize of a pair of new sneakers, which he plans on exchanging for girl’s shoes and giving them to Zahra. Cinematically, the race is a bore; Ali falls and falls behind, and his push to make up lost distance, accentuated by horrible slow motion, either confuses him or allows his competitive spirit to kick in, for he finishes first, not third. Zahra will be disappointed again—but we have caught fleeting glimpses of something red and white in the back of Ali’s father’s bicycle that just may be a pair of new shoes for each of them.
     Its vividness giving way to mildness, Majidi’s film deteriorates; but those of us in the U.S. have at least been spared the actual ending: a flashforward to the grown Ali, a competitive runner.

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