Friday, April 4, 2008

Children of Heaven

(This one's for Thailandchani, who was kind enough to request another film recommendation.)

Is there something, I often wonder, that we have sacrificed along the way to the material comforts we enjoy in our society? There's a precious innocence about Children of Heaven, a 1997 Iranian movie about Ali, seen here,
and his sister, Khore,
living in the poorest quarter of what I take to be Teheran--or some other great Iranian city. Charged with taking his sister's shoes to be fixed, Ali loses them on the way home, and they agree to hide the loss from their impoverished parents, for fear of punishment. For each of them to get to school, they are reduced to sharing a single pair of sneakers--a trick that involves a lot of running through the narrow back streets to facilitate a timely exchange. At the end, a big interschool running competition holds out the offer of a new pair of sneakers as third prize, and Ali enters, with the desperate hope of taking third place... (I'm not revealing the outcome!)

It's a thoroughly enchanting movie, not least because it's shot with such an eye for the beauty of detail--from the gutters running through the streets, to the faces of the children, to the street vendors' stores and the rugs at the local mosque. A brilliant sense of color pervades the every frame, along with a rhythm in the movement of the characters and the camera's eye. Beyond that, it's a story of utter simplicity, told at a leisurely pace and with an understanding that the tiniest of things (like William Carlos Williams's "red wheelbarrow," perhaps) can have the greatest of significance: the treasure of a gleaming, fake gold ballpoint pen, the opening of a bread oven, the bell-push at the gate of an impossibly wealthy mansion... Every image in this poetic movie seems to carry its own emotional weight, every relationship is sweet and subtle in its complexity, and the sense of community is palpable.

You have to wonder, don't you, how this kind of a movie emerges from this midpoint on our Bush's "axis of evil," our supposed archenemy in the Middle East, while our own "land of the free" produces its endless stream of violence and gore. I wrote a moment ago about the innocence of the film: it is innocent of guile, of irony, of malice. It's suffused with love--even though that love might be forbidding, at times stern. The children are allowed their childhood; even in these poor streets, they have no more to fear than a grown-up's anger. Protected by the community in which they live, they are safe to roam at will. Their deprivation of virtually all material goods--and sometimes of necessities, like shoes--does not deprive them of their humanity. Rather, it enriches them as human beings.

Okay, there's some idealization going on here. Life in the poor district of any city must surely be less benign than what we witness in "Children of Heaven." And yet... we hear, we read about those nine-year old American children in suburban Waycross, Georgia, plotting to harm, even possibly kill their teacher and it's hard not to conclude that there is some deep flaw in the way we raise our children in this largely rather affluent society, that we have lost some of the innocence that goes with the absence of material expectations. As for the protection of community... we have been taught to live in fear--of each other, of outsiders, of the dangers of the street. I watched this movie with both joy and sadness for own own current plight, let alone the plight of its young protagonists.


thailandchani said...

Thank you~ :) It's on my NetFlix list now.

The concerns you raise... really interest me. I know you already know where I stand on the issue of 'stuff', affluence and the overemphasis on it. I'm convinced that too much affluence is not a good thing. It does something to a culture that is very damaging.

Too detailed, of course, for a comments forum but I'll recommend a book to you. "Ascent of Humanity" by Charles Eisenstein.

It unpacks all of this much better than I can.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Chani. I'll check for the book at my local indie before doing the Amazon thing.

robin andrea said...

What a great review, Peter. I'm going to add this to my netflix queue. I'm trying to wrap my brain around the concept of children being permitted and protected to have their childhoods. We've lost much in our culture.

CS said...

That one is already in my Netflix queue, but based on your review, I'll move it up.

Cathy said...

I loved Children of Heaven and everything you say about it is true -- very poetically spoken.
I think there are children here in this country who are as innocent and as generous as the boy and girl in this movie. And there are undoubtedly mean-spirited children there.
Beautiful review.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Cathy. Good to have your comment on The Buddha Diaries.