CHILDREN OF HEAVEN
Directed and written by Majid Majidi
With Mir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddigi and Amir Naji
Distributed by Miramax
Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf
Written by Moshen Makhmalbaf
With Ghorban Ali Naderi, Massoumeh Naderi and ZahraNaderi
Distributed by New Yorker Films
CHILDREN OF HEAVEN and THE APPLE are both relatively austere Iranian films about children, and both have made relatively successful tours of the Western festival circuit before being released commercially in the U.S. CHILDREN OF HEAVEN took the top prize at the 1997 Montreal Film Festival, and THE APPLE appeared at Cannes and last fall;s New York Film Festival. (Majidi's latest film has just premiered at Iran's Fajr Film Festival.) They're even playing side-by-side in New York's Lincoln Plaza arthouse multiplex. CHILDREN OF HEAVEN is a piece of Third World neo-realism, while THE APPLE is a docudrama made by the 18-year-old daughter of filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Ultimately, they may not have all that much in common, but the whims of the American marketplace have juxtaposed them, and the comparison is revealing.
If SNEAKERS wasn't already taken, it would be a more appropriate title for CHILDREN OF HEAVEN. The story kicks off when 9-year-old Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) accidentally loses the shoes of his sister Zahra (Bahare Seddigi) at a market. As a result, Zahra has nothing to wear to school, and the two decide to attend school part-time so they can both share his pair of sneakers. Their impoverished family can't afford to buy a new pair right away. Although confronted by TV ads for expensive sneakers and the fancy footwear of their classmates, Ali and Zahra continue to search for a way to acquire the sneakers. Such an opportunity presents itself when Ali's school sponsors a race with a third-place prize of a pair of new sneakers.
Majidi is a skilled director of child performers, and Hashemian, in particular, gives a touching performance. (His big brown eyes are particularly expressive.) He also endeavors relatively successfully to capture a child's point of view by shooting from low angles and filming close-ups with a shallow focus. However, he also pushes the audience's buttons by repeatedly showing children crying or even placing them in physical danger, as well as through the use of a sentimental score. Like Kiarostami's films (and THE BICYCLE THIEF, for that matter), CHILDREN OF HEAVEN is oriented around a quest, and like Jafar Panahi's, it makes extensive use of urban locations. A scene in which Zahra waits by a stream for her sneaker to float by could have come straight from THE WHITE BALLOON.
However, the bittersweet ironies of its athletic-triumph-of-adversity ending are far less challenging than the resistance to narrative closure implicit in many of Kiarostami's films, and Majidi's occasional attempts at lyricism feel forced. My problem isn't so much that CHILDREN OF HEAVEN is derivative - how many films aren't? - but that it's so much cruder than the source material it takes from Kiarostami and early de Sica. (I have much the same problem with the well-regarded French film THE DREAM LIFE OF ANGELS.) I wouldn't go as far as Michael Atkinson, who wrote that "Majid Majidi's spare movie is just primitive enough to muster sighs of touristy contentment from the IL POSTINO fan base. But relative to Kiarostami's ambiguous elegance, it's a crying clown on black velvet," but he has a point.
Inspired by a TV story about an elderly man (Ghorban Ali Naderi) and his blind wife who'd kept their 12-year-old daughters (Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi) locked in their house for 11 years, Samira Makhmalbaf contacted the family and got them to act in a sort of staged documentary about their lives. After receiving a letter from the family's neighbors informing them of the girls' imprisonment, the Welfare Department forced the father to free them. The couple was allowed to retain custody of them on the condition that they saw open the bars on their front door. A role reversal eventually occurs: as the girls get their first taste of street life and interaction with other children (as well as ice cream), he's forced to remain at home sawing the bars.
CHILDREN OF HEAVEN makes a muted commentary on the pressures of consumerism and poverty, but THE APPLE wears its feminist intentions on its sleeve. It seems born out of a desire to make a mark on the world, and through the story of Massoumeh and Zahra's imprisonment, it allegorizes the conditions facing Iranian women. (The film's notion of liberation eventually encompasses all its female characters.) It's an intervention on several fronts: into the lives of the Naderi family and into the burgeoning worldwide subgenre of films that mix documentary and fiction. Some critics have suggested that Mohsen, not Samira, is the true auteur behind THE APPLE, but I find this presumption too sexist and ageist to take seriously. (It was shot - in 11 days! - with film stock intended for one of his films, and he's credited with the possibly nonexistent screenplay.) Nevertheless, THE APPLE shares some ground with his 1996 film A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE, an autobiographical pseudo-documentary about the making of a film about a real-life incident in which the teenage Mohsen stabbed a cop. (The two films' final shots are almost identical.) Like A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE, it seems intended to test the possibilities of filmmaking as a means of therapy, one major difference being that Mohsen reenacts a story from his life.
Despite this family resemblance, THE APPLE also feels sui generis. The child actors in CHILDREN OF HEAVEN may be non-professionals, but they give convincingly naturalistic performances. As playful as Massoumeh and Zahra are, they seem conscious of the camera's presence. Despite its grounding in documentary, THE APPLE is not primarily a realist film. Its bluntly allegorical dimension lends it a mythical, fairy-tale quality. As the narrative progresses, it even takes on overtones of the Pied Paper story and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. (I don't know what the apple signifies in Islam, but Makhmalbaf's use of it isn't far from Christian symbolism.) Unfortunately, this fairy-tale quality and use of non-professional performers also leave the film open to the case of the cutesies that afflicts many films about children.
Over the past few years, Iranian cinema has slowly become fashionable, and it's inevitable that an Iranian film would eventually be nominated for an Oscar. Given the Academy's pathetic Anglophilia, attraction to period pieces and RUSHMORE-phobia, CHILDREN OF HEAVEN may even be a relatively adventurous choice. (Next to the sentimentality of its competitor CENTRAL STATION, it looks as restrained as Bresson.) There's nothing terribly wrong with it, but there's also something depressing about the fact that it's almost certain to reach a wider audience than THE APPLE or the forthcoming American releases of A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE and Dariush Mehrjui's excellent LEILA. Its success may encourage American distributors to continue releasing Iranian films, but it might also encourage Iranian filmmakers to gear their films towards the demands of the Weinstein brothers and the upscale audience whose appetite for exoticism and literary cachet they service. (Coming soon to a theater near you: Gwynneth Paltrow in a chador!) Despite the flaws of THE APPLE, it's evidence of a talented artist finding her own voice, while CHILDREN OF HEAVEN feels like the kind of re-tread that comes at the end of a wave. Nevertheless, I'm happy that American distributors are allowing us to compare them.