When another racer knocked Ali down on the track’s home stretch, I swore. I bit my knuckles until he crossed the finish line and collapsed. No, this wasn’t an Olympic race like in Chariots of Fire. It was a four-kilometer race between a hundred 3rd and 4th graders. The elementary school race, like the rest of the movie, was able to capture intense human emotions within seemingly trivial circumstances.
Last Tuesday, the foreign film series continued with Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven. The Iranian movie received an Academy Award nomination for “Best Foreign Film” in 1997. It focuses on a lower-class family from a congested town and a brother’s attempts to get his sister a pair of shoes.
The movie shares many similarities with The Bicycle Thief, shown last semester. They are both about desperate people who lose something that is of relatively little monetary value, but essential to their livelihood. Developing a movie around the premise of a lost pair of shoes seems absurd today when the American economy is in turmoil. Despite the vast difference of numerical loss, the relative value of the shoes is comparable to our current losses.
Seeing Children of Heaven is especially relevant when the threat of Iran is a factor during this election. Prejudice and racism against Iranians is hard to sustain after watching this story about a family struggling with poverty. Quite simply, it is a movie about Ali’s love for his sister, Zahara, and the lengths he will go to for her.
Children of Heaven depicts parents and teachers as strict but not unkind. This is greatly contrasted to American cinema in the ’90s, where authority and competence are inversely proportionate. The difference in characterization might be attributed to Iranian cinema being state sponsored, rather than privately funded.
The characters in the film demonstrate the breadth of human circumstances. The girl who happened upon Zahara’s shoes is even more destitute. When she is seen helping her blind father do his job, Zahara decides not to confront her. That charity is reciprocated when Zahara drops her pen and has it returned the next day by that same girl.
The protagonist, Ali, loses his sister’s shoes, and spends the rest of the movie trying to make things right. He swaps his shoes with her to go to class, knowing his father can’t afford a new pair. Ali’s guilt over the lost shoes and his attempts to replace them drive the movie’s plot and emotional weight.
Ali has failure repeatedly thrown in his face. The camera focuses on the boy’s despondent, weepy face several times throughout. He is a nine-year-old told by his father “Stop acting like a child.”
Only twice during the movie does Ali relax and “catch his breath.” Ali gets to play with a young boy while his father works for the boy’s grandfather. The second time, after the race in which he didn’t place where he wanted, Ali comes home, takes his shoes off and dips them in a pool. The movie opens with rough hands at work repairing a girl’s shoes. It ends with a shot of Ali’s blistered feet, finally at rest.
The “children of heaven” are Zahara and other little girl. Their characters embody innocence whereas Ali is no longer able to live blithely. His childhood is now behind him.
The film festival is continuing every Tuesday at 3:30 and 7 p.m. in the Evans Complex room 105. Admission is free and all students and faculty are invited to attend. Next Tuesday, Dr. Pease will be showing the action-packed Yojimbo, a Japanese film Akira Kurosawa. Yojimbo inspired the American films A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing.