Children of Heaven
First screened and reviewed in February 1999 / Most recently screened in March 2020
Director: Majid Majidi. Cast: Mir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi, Mohammed Amir Naji, Fereshte Sarabandi, Nafise Jafar-Mohammadi, Mohammad-Hasan Hosseinian, Jafar Seyfollahi, Christopher Maleki, Davud Shams, Kambiz Peykarnegar. Screenplay: Majid Majidi.
Well, look who went and woke up on the wrong side of Iranian cinema! Sometimes I look back on my more peevish reviews and can't tell what got into me. Here, I'm pretty clear: 1) I was still struggling back then to credit directorial strategies that werent't totally conspicuous, or ambiguities that weren't plainly flagged as Ambiguities, and 2) having been so transformed by Taste of Cherry, I think I allowed myself to feel aggrieved that this movie wasn't like that one, or even trying to be. As much as I'm advocating for Iranian film here—a passion that would only increase with years—I was committing the rookie mistake of discovering a new artistic tradition and wanting every encounter to resemble in style and impact my epiphanic introduction...something I of course would never have asked of U.S. cinema, or any other tradition I already knew in depth. And there's plenty else to lament about this piece, which finds me, at 21, trying to stretch into new forms of film appreciation while still thinking that the Oscar lens is compulsory. Anyway, Children of Heaven is at least a solid B, as the later-added Twitter capsule and VOR rating indicate. Before I find time to substitute a different write-up, please just know that I know better now! —March 2020

Twitter Capsule: Moving fable of siblings colluding to pool resources. Milieu mixes the sweet and sour. Some tactics a bit easy.

VOR:   Originality and depth aren't quite this movie's calling cards, but it's very moving, and I appreciate that what's sad and what's stirring are never separable.

Photo © 1997 Kanun Parvaresh Fekri, © 1999 Miramax Films
That Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven has recently become Iran's first-ever Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is both an inspiring and a dispiriting event. On the one hand, Iran has been turning out a startling number of accomplished and striking films for the past decade, and the past five years especially. To see the country recognized by the occasionally insular Academy is a cause for great elation among those of us who have been swept up by the country's film output. Another reason to appreciate Majidi's accomplishment is that Iranian censorship boards have traditionally been so strict about sponsoring and releasing the work of Iran's filmmakers that any time that work reaches an international audience feels like a feat in itself.

And yet, Children of Heaven is not the kind of picture that one imagines having trouble with even the more Draconian censors who may have viewed it, and there lies the rub. Iranian films, or at least those which we in America have been able to see, tend to fall in two categories. One is the slow, spare, and contemplative drama typically realized by someone like Abbas Kiarostami, whose Taste of Cherry was a controversial Cannes co-winner in 1997 and my own favorite film released in America in 1998. The other, more often represented genre is the fanciful, child-driven pageant, most famously embodied in Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon and The Mirror, or Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh. Children of Heaven, which follows a poor brother and sister's attempts to conceal the fact that they share a pair of sneakers, clearly fits this second mold, and so it is beside the point to complain that neither Majidi's ideas nor his expression of them bear any stamp of Kiarostamian profundity.

Unfortunately, the film also lacks the parti-colored dazzle and exuberant emotion of a picture like Gabbeh, settling instead for a rote sentimentalism that is painless to watch but fails to excite. Ali and Zahra, the siblings at the picture's center, are refreshing for being unlike those smug, moppety Hollywood tykes who get by on cuteness alone. Only the hard of heart will not be smitten by these fresh-faced little cuties, but when they shed tears, we are more inclined to feel their sadness than to fawn over the precious little cheeks beneath the tears. I loved that little guy in Jerry Maguire as much as anyone, but a movie about him alone would have been rather laborious to watch. Children of Heaven isn't. The issue of the lost slippers sounds trivial until you realize what paralyzing fright exists for a child who knows he has been irresponsible, whose only hope for avoiding punishment and disapproval is by recovering the object he recognizes as hopelessly lost. Ali's self-consciousness when he realizes he has lost the shoes, Zahra's shame at having to wear sneakers that are too large for her, and their afternoon appointments to switch off the shoes—she has school in the morning, he during the day—reaches that level of energetic urgency unique to children who think they are getting away with something.

As you can see, however, much of what appealed to about Children of Heaven was the degree to which it avoided the pitfalls and conventions of other pictures about youngsters; my disappointment with Majidi was that, despite knowing what not to do, he only seldom had original or involving notions of what to put on screen. As the picture wears on (and it's much shorter than it feels), the family's poverty and the grumbly tension between the parents feel less convincing and less consistent as backdrop. We merely regard Ali and Zahra as they exchange shoes, try to sneak past school guards, admire how other children are dressed, and then race off to meet one another again. The one major exception is a subplot in which Ali accompanies his father (Mohammad Amir Naji) as they try to find employment as hired-out gardeners for Teheran's rich. I liked watching the boy interact with his dad, but then Majidi ruins the storyline with a maudlin bicycle accident that is not only wholly predictable but dishonestly filmed: the huge, seasick dips and teeter-totters of the camera in a POV shot tracking down the hill fit not at all with the shot of Ali, his father, and their bicycle, unstoppably but steadily speeding down the incline. That's called cheating, Majid Majidi. (Sorry, I love that name.)

By the time we reach a climactic sequence in which Ali participates in a four-kilometer school race—the prize he seeks is a new pair of sneakers—Majidi's film has made certain its interest in concocting implausible or overly convenient events by which to extend its thinnish and soon-overspent story. The film deserves points for concluding in a way different than you might expect, but again, that ending is to be cherished only for bucking convention, not for being all that interesting or compelling in itself. The nomination for Children of Heaven is like Al Pacino's win for Scent of a Woman or Lauren Bacall's The Mirror Has Two Faces nod: Iran well deserves an Oscar, but not for this picture. The opening shot of Children of Heaven is a close-up on the hands of a cobbler as he quickly and carefully repairs a tear in Zahra's soon-to-be-lost pink slippers. It's a bold statement for a film to make: introducing itself with a visual icon of craftsmanship and structural maintenance when the picture itself is featherweight and shaky in construction. C

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Foreign-Language Film

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