While I'm not in the camp of the Majidi detractors, I understand where their animus comes from. If you've seen a fair number of Iranian films, it's easy to view Majidi's as transparently derivative and calculatedly commercial, offering simplistic pieties on subjects that others have probed with real subtlety and sophistication. Where late-80s, child-centered masterpieces like Naderi's The Runner, Beyzai's Bashu, the Little Stranger and Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House? were brilliant and idiosyncratic enough to launch the postrevolutionary Iranian cinema from total obscurity to the beginnings of its current international renown, Majidi's movies can seem facile and formulaic by comparison, cinematic parvenus trying to elbow their way into Oscar gold and critical glory.
Yet that view is, I think, itself a bit too simplistic. What's kept me from it has been the experience of watching and discussing his films with various sorts of American moviegoers, who invariably seem extraordinarily engrossed and often deeply moved by what they see. Of course, part of that may be owed to the viewers' prior unfamiliarity with the wiles of Iranian cinema. Another part may come from Majidi's direct attack on the heartstrings, a goal that doesn't require incredible dexterity in films that involve kids. But I've come to think there's something deeper involved, too, a philosophic stratum that not only helps account for the films' emotional power but also puts them in basic alignment with other Iranian films that are generally considered much different.
This commonality is worth noting at the moment because The Color of Paradise, which opens this week, will inevitably be compared to Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, a June arrival. The two films, which had their North American premieres at last fall's Toronto Film Festival, are nominal opposites in many ways?the former direct and emotional, the latter arcane and cerebral?and critics will be tempted, as critics often are, to vaunt one at the expense of the other. That's unfortunate. Considering that recent decade's-end critics polls effectively elevated Kiarostami to the unenviable status of World's Most Overpraised Director (which doesn't mean that he's not great), the tendency to pit the filmmakers against each other can only obscure more than it reveals. Indeed, American critics who want to understand Kiarostami better could learn the most by putting aside auteurist exceptionalism and looking closely at what he shares with Majidi?and vice versa.
The Color of Paradise and The Wind Will Carry Us both envision a world divided between its obvious surfaces and the hidden forces that govern it, a split that entails age-old pain and injustices yet also implies the possibility of transcendence (where will the wind carry us, if not to paradise?). Besides their comparably lavish uses of wild natural landscapes in northern Iran, both films hinge on an evocative metaphor-cum-sensory trope?occluded vision. In Kiarostami's film, many characters are left out of the camera's field of vision. In Majidi's, the main character is blind. Both films leave to the viewer the challenge of really seeing; the main difference between them lies not in what they imply is to be seen, but in the fact that Kiarostami shrouds his meaning in Antonioniesque ambiguity while Majidi conveys his with Spielbergian oomph.
As that contrast might suggest, the Iranian cinema's recent strength has involved pumping new life into both European-style art films and classic Hollywood genre conventions. Naturally, the former effort was the first to grab attention at European festivals and among Euro-attuned critics. But the revitalization of genre has been just as important in giving Iranian films a solid popular base on home ground, just as it may well put across the Iranian difference to American audiences who'll never bother with Iran's artier fare.
And if you're out to resuscitate genre, why not go the whole melodramatic hog and make a film about a poor, kindhearted blind boy who is unloved even by his own father? At the very least, Majidi must be credited with the sheer nerve of his enterprise, which no doubt is one thing that appeals to many American filmgoers. Our own movies long ago lost their ability to address such nakedly sentimental subjects directly; like so much of our culture, they've become ironic and wary of manipulation?justifiably so, perhaps. Majidi starts out from the radical premise that reclaiming crucial portions of the cinema's lost innocence may take nothing more (or less) than a complete, unguarded sincerity from both filmmaker and viewer. Is this pure naivete on his part, or something purer still?
Recalling that great cornerstone of Iran's poetic cinema, Forugh Farrokhzhad's 1962 leper-colony short The House Is Black, The Color of Paradise starts out closely observing a school for the blind in which the handicapped kids really are. On the day the term ends, all the other children's parents come to pick them up, but little Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani, whose performance is remarkable) is left sitting on an outdoor bench unclaimed. Hearing a baby bird that's fallen in the grass nearby, he scoops it up and, with considerable difficulty, climbs a tree and delivers it back into the safety of its nest. You can't imagine an American filmmaker risking so much on a metaphor and the chance of emotional overkill.
Yet this scene clears the way for Majidi's straight-to-the-heart approach from then on. The film's dramatic crux is that Mohammad is unwanted by his dour, widowed father Hashem (Hossein Mahjub), not, apparently, because he's an embarrassment or burden but because he's a constant reminder of his father's misfortune. Refused by the school when he asks to leave the boy there, Hashem grudgingly takes him back to their rugged home in the mountains, where Mohammad at least has the comforts of nature and the love of his granny (Salime Feizi) and two sisters. But these don't assuage the paternal disquiet. When Hashem spies the chance to marry a woman better off than himself, he's eager to apprentice Mohammad off to a blind woodcarver. This bitter displacement brings the boy to the depths of his misery, but also leads, eventually, to a climactic ordeal that places father and son alike at the mercy of rampaging nature.
Nature, in fact, is such a constant (if highly mercurial) presence in the film that it might almost be considered a separate character. And certainly one of Majidi's most ingenious and effective devices is the way he uses Mohammad's blindness to stress the beauty and sensual allure of nature. Most movies that center on blind people treat blindness as a factor that separates/connects the characters. Majidi, instead, uses it to connect the human realm to its natural surroundings. We become Mohammad's eyes, comprehending the surrounding beauty that he "sees" only through his other senses. (It goes without saying that his father's blindness to this same beauty is the mark of his moral deficiency.) Yet what comprises this beauty, finally? What makes us see the world as beautiful rather than hideous? It's surely not just Mohammad Davoodi's lush cinematography combined with Iran's landscapes, is it?
The Color of Paradise, which was called The Color of God in Iran, can be seen as Majidi's first explicitly religious film, which is the single factor that makes it most notable in both his career and the context of recent Iranian cinema. In fact, this element doesn't become literally explicit until the film's final shot, but the religious spirit and direction is constant up until then. And it's in this regard that the film's view of nature is really crucial. Majidi's scrupulously phrased drama makes it plain that nature is not God (implying otherwise indeed constitutes what may be the preeminent heresy in Islam, pantheism, which Mohsen Makhmalbaf veers perilously close to in his exquisite, provocative Gabbeh). Rather, nature, like the human heart, is as a mirror in which the image?the immaterial meaning: the beauty or terror?comes from God. This sense of the divine behind the visible, the manifest, is really what animates the film. And I think it's what appeals at the deepest level to many moviegoers who might explain their attraction simply in terms of the film's surface charms and universal emotions.
Iranians are apt to smile at the term "Judeo-Christian," which lops the Islamic branch off a tripartite monotheistic tradition that they call "Abrahamian." Like many other Iranian artworks and films, including several of Kiarostami's, The Color of Paradise implicitly evokes the story of Abraham and Isaac. Like that ancient paradigm, Majidi's film is about a father who's willing to sacrifice his son, and a son who survives solely?make no mistake?due to divine intervention. But there's another scenario being played out here as well: one of artistic fathers and sons.
In the genealogy of Iranian cinema, Kiarostami represents the generation of prerevolutionary, mostly (or nominally) secular directors, while Makhmalbaf, the first major filmmaker to emerge after the revolution, started out as an Islamic fundamentalist ideologue/artist and later converted to freethinking and auteurist art cinema. Majidi is something else again. Though he began working alongside Makhmalbaf-the-fundamentalist, and in fact acted in a couple of his early films, he has repudiated neither cinema "for the masses" nor his Islamic beliefs. Rather, he's gradually expanded his understanding of both. In effect, his cinema?unlike that of other famous Iranians?aims not at arthouse elites and intellectuals, but at moviegoers the world over. And his ultimate message, you might say, isn't the greatness of the auteur, but of the Auteur.
His rise to prominence, I have come to think, is a healthy, perhaps necessary thing. The West has misconstrued much about Iranian cinema even as it has appropriated it, especially as regards the religious/philosophical thinking that undergirds so much of Iranian art. Majidi's work puts some of that thinking clearly on the table while also keeping Iranian cinema out of the grasp of the pointyheads. The best chance for any "foreign" cinema to survive ultimately lies in just such a maneuver?or, should I say, miracle?
Another fascinating Iranian film that similarly depends on sheer conviction and the resuscitation of genre plays this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the 2000 New Films/New Directors series. Directed by Tahmineh Milani, Iran's most outspoken female director, Two Women was a huge hit in Iran last year, quite obviously because it's such an entertainingly in-your-face feminist polemic, one that flames patriarchal oppression unstintingly and ferociously for an hour and a half. Featuring a brilliant performance by actress Niki Karimi (Iran's leading female star), Milani's high-octane, high-dudgeon melodrama is due to open commercially this summer; I'll reserve further comment till then, while highly recommending its MOMA debut.