Majid Majidi — The Hafiz of Iranian Cinema
Beautiful stories of heavenly children in lyrical films
In 1979, after the Islamic Revolution, Iranian Cinema was considered to be all but dead. Many of its actors and directors left the country and 180 of its 430 theaters were burnt down. There was no hope left for the cinema of Iran.
But it has not just revived, but also produced a long line of celebrated filmmakers with their superb works earning respect around the world. The strict censorship introduced after the revolution forced the directors to find new ways to tell their stories, borrowing heavily from the Persian narrative tradition, literature, and poetry. The auteurs have often used metaphors and abstractions to get around censorship to make beautiful films, telling stories in poetic cinema aesthetics. Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016), the best known Iranian film auteur, introduced this style of film narrative with Where Is the Friend’s House? in 1987. New Iranian Cinema was born from the ashes of the Islamic Revolution, with its roots in Persian traditions, influenced by Italian Neorealism and French New Wave (Neorealism, Iranian Style, by Stephen Weinberger in Iranian Studies, February 2007). These films tell stories like the course of nature without making any judgment, portraying conflicts with innocence, often seen through the eyes of children (e.g. Turtles Can Fly, 2004), in beautiful natural settings, or simple everyday lives of poor and marginalized people in the harshest of conditions. The protagonists just carry on, without making any judgment, taking each day as it comes.
Majid Majidi is one of the most prominent filmmakers of contemporary Iran, following the footsteps of Kiarostami, along with Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, 2009), Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly, 2004), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar, 2001) and several others. Majidi’s first work to draw world attention is Children of Heaven (1997), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He has made several others afterward, including Baran (2001), The Willow Tree (2005) and Muhammad: The Messenger of God (2015). In this piece I will discuss two of his works dealing with children; Children of Heaven (1997) and The Color of Paradise (1999). Like most of his films, they tell simple and beautiful stories of human resilience, their close relationships with nature, and an acceptance of life as it comes — all in plain narrative. This is similar to the Italian Neorealist school of filmmaking, but with a distinct Persian touch and a deeper meaning, true to the traditions of Hafiz. Majidi’s films tell stories with blunt minimalism of the Sufi tradition that culminated in Diwan-e-Hafiz, the most revered book in Iran after the Quran.
In Children of Heaven (1997) brother Ali loses the only pair of shoes of his sister Zahra. With this begins their daily struggle to save their poor parents from another expense and their own dignity at school where shoes are mandatory. This is a story of human endurance, that of the children trying to save the family, but never revealing it to the grown-ups. They clean Ali’s pair together, making soap bubbles that shine in the sun, a reflection of their spotless and innocent hearts. The background music of Kayvan Jahanshahi brings out the simplicity, beauty and purity of the bubbles, and those of the hearts of the children blowing them.
Zahra actually spots her lost shoes on Roya, another girl at school. She and Ali follow her to their home, only to find they are even poorer. They instantly decide to save the dignity of this family as well, a message conveyed to the viewers with a simple exchange of glances, in a masterstroke of montage. They walk slowly back home, with their heads down, in sharp contrast to their energetic running and following Roya, perhaps thinking of her unfortunate circumstances. The scene cuts to their father preparing tea for the mosque, while a Sufi song is being chanted. A superb show of empathy and a brilliant moment in cinema aesthetics.
Ali joins an inter-school running contest that is offering a new pair of shoes to the second runner up. With almost superhuman courage and perseverance, he ends up in the first place, winning a greater prize but not the shoes he is after. Disappointed, exhausted, he sits next to a tank putting his feet in the water, while the goldfish clean them away as if kissing in appreciation. Just then, their father is seen entering the house, with two new pairs of shoes tied to his bike, unbeknownst to the children. In his signature style, Majidi leaves it open-ended.
In The Color of Paradise (1999), Majidi again comes to the children, but this time puts them (or him, Mohammad) in a more difficult situation, with his own father, Hashem, trying to abandon him because he is blind. It ends in the reconciliation of the father, but with some tragic consequences.
The original Farsi title of the film is “The Color of God”, an allusion to the special place of light and color in Islamic symbolism. It presents an elaborate treatment of colors and light, and also their total absence, as seen from the perspective of Mohammad for the first two minutes into the film, setting his worldview to the audiences in complete darkness. Mohammad, being unable to see, is constantly trying to touch God with his fingertips, reading nature’s braille, akin to a Sufi mystic reciting his heart-wrenching Gazals. His delicate fingers read from the white pages of his braille book, symbolizing the purity of his heart.
Mohammad falls into a fast running stream, setting the most dramatic sequence of the film in motion. The light is grey, music is ominous, a turtle is stuck between the rocks and Hashem is hesitating. His heart is in torment, so are those of the audiences. Will he take this opportunity to abandon his son? Majidi devotes over 40 seconds to this painful sequence, allowing the tension to set in before Hashem finally starts to act and jumps in after another 20 long seconds, but his face is now lit up with a mystic ray, indicating Hashem is going through reconciliation. The father and the son are swept away by the strong current, washed up at a calmer part of the stream.
The Color of Paradise is perhaps the best manifestation of Majidi’s use of nature as an integral component of a story. Nature not only forms part of a scene but also plays the role of a character, similar to the sequence of Durga dying during a stormy night in Pather Panchali (1955) of Satyajit Ray. Sometimes happy and kind, sometimes sad, sometimes ominous and sometimes trying to warn of an imminent disaster — nature in all different shades and sounds. The soundtrack is almost entirely made out of natural sources, again a brilliant work of Jahanshahi, along with Alireza Kohan Deyri. The landscape shows happiness and joy as Mohammad and his sisters frolic in the field which is full of colors, blossoms, birds, and butterflies. But it takes a completely different role, sad and sinister, when Hashem is taking his son to a distant place in order to abandon him there, or when Mohammad is about to fall in the stream. Then again nature turns bright at dawn, birds fly across the clear sky and the heavenly ray of the sun lights up Mohammad’s hand, who is perhaps on his eternal journey, but Majidi leaves it to the audiences to interpret. The finest moment of the film.
Majidi’s films, especially these two, culminate in an appreciation for the world and its beauty, acceptance of life as it is, and a process of maturation of the characters. The allegoric titles, the dialog of the protagonists, the key sequences; all allude to the lyrical Sufi tradition of Persia. Simple narratives and the natural inclination of the protagonists to acceptance of the world around them point to Majidi’s strong belief in life’s simplicity, man’s inherent place in nature, and transformation of an individual from being himself to a part of the larger world. He portrays the children, played mostly by non-actors, as more mature than the grown-ups, but maintaining their innocence. This is the leitmotif in several of Majidi’s works, including The Song of the Sparrows (2008) and Baran (2001), although, in the latter, the protagonists are a bit older, apparently at or just beyond puberty.
Majidi’s children are poor, but happy and determined, carrying on, naturally. Ali-Zahra duo continues struggling, without complaining or asking for help, even when confronted by the grown-ups. At the same time, they find happiness in simple things (as in the sequence of blowing soap bubbles). Mohammad’s sisters are full of pride and joy as he is reading from his Braille book, better than any other kid. Or, the joy Mohammad feels after saving a fallen chick. Majidi sends this message across in each film where emotions run at their peak, but the story remains strikingly simple and beautiful — the Hafiz of cinema.
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