Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Children of Heaven

In Iranian director Majid Majidi's 1997 film Children of Heaven, Ali loses his sister Zahra's shoes during an errand to have the repaired. Fearful of his father's wrath and conscientious of the family's impoverished financial situation, Ali begs Zahra not to tell him that he has lost the shoes. He offers to share his sneakers, which she wears to school in the mornings. They then switch off in the middle of the day so that he can attend school in the afternoon.

When Ali returns from school after the first day of sharing the sneakers, Zahra says she’s embarrassed to wear the shoes because they are dirty. Ali proposes that they wash them. At this point there is a striking shift in the film’s affective register. Twenty minutes into a movie that has relied on everyday realism and made no use of non-diegetic music, even in the opening credits, music is not only heard for the first time, but is foregrounded, directing the viewer’s consciousness to a different relationship with the film’s diegesis. Ali and Zahra scrub the shoes and then begin blowing bubbles, which seem to dance to the music. The delicate, colorful instrumentation conjures connotations of magic, joy, and the sublime (as well as the exotic, to Western ears). No words are exchanged during this moment. The children smile at each other as they blow bubbles, and when they are done, Ali places the shoes on the wall to dry.

Like bubbles that hang in the air, this moment of lyrical suspension arrests the linear progress of the narrative, opening a window onto the special world of the children. Much of the film involves a series of scenes in which the children navigate their physical environments and social relationships through progressive, if meandering, movement, often while running through narrow, winding, walled streets of the south section of Tehran. At other points later in the film, the foregrounding of non-diegetic music has varying temporal effects, either magically suspending the action as this scene does or helping to create forward momentum, as when Zahra loses one of the sneakers in the gutter and chases it through the streets while the music seems to give the shoe an enchanted will of its own.   In this particular scene of washing the shoes together, Ali and Zahra share affection, pleasure, reconciliation, and brotherly/sisterly devotion in a moment of repose and respite from their difficulties that positions them as idealized, sentimental, good children. These good children have a closeness to music, imagination, and nature different from adults.

This scene can be further understood, perhaps, in the context of post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. After the Revolution, the old studio system was dismantled and restrictions were imposed on the content of films. Adult men and women could not touch each other, even as actors, if they were not married in reality, and not only overt sexuality but also singing and dancing were eliminated (Cardullo, 111; Sadr, 228). Children in Iranian film, who are not bound by the same restrictions and are read as having a fundamental innocence, have more freedom and mobility that adults. According to both Sadr and Cardullo, children allow Iranian cinema to address social, political, and other themes under the inoffensive cloak of child innocence. As Sadr notes “children liberate plots by introducing non-essential actions [acquiring] a tone of elevated romanticism that their parents never have” (233). Like Ali, who is able to get work for his father, these children are more capable in the modern world than the adults and are portrayed as hard-working (Sadr, 231). Whereas adult emotion is limited, children show a platonic way of loving (235), which Sadr associates with Iranian cinema’s “poetic realism.” These films “converted the question ‘why do people feel this way’ to ‘how does it feel to have such feelings?’