Children of Heaven (1997) *Requires English subtitles

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Foreign | 0 comments

Heaven1

Disclaimer: The most contagious crying ever captured on celluloid.

I almost forgot about how monumentally big the smallest of events felt when I was a kid. Accidentally breaking something, hiding it from my parents, lying about it through my teeth, and all the while torturing myself with guilt. Those were the days. And I have Children of Heaven to thank for that little piece of nostalgia. Here is a movie quite simply about a pair of shoes – and if I may be so bold, far and away the most moving and heartwarming movie about shoes ever made. About a young boy (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) sent to get food from the market and get his sister’s shoes mended by the cobbler. But when he takes his eyes off the repaired shoes for a minute, they’re mistaken for trash by a blind peasant and carted off. What ensues is a series of misadventures between the boy and his sister (Bahare Seddiqi), as they try everything possible to get kicks back on her feet without letting their parents know what happened.

When it was released, critics Heaven2compared Children of Heaven to de Seca’s classic piece of Italian Neo-Realism, Bicycle Thieves. While I suppose it’s warranted in the similarity of the stories, the moods and intent are anything but. In that regard Children of Heaven is closer to The Red Balloon, a very simple movie with equal parts joy and sadness, all from the perspective of a child on real city streets. On the perfectly gritty corridors and marketplaces of Tehran, Iran, in fact, and shot with a cinema verite approach that mixes the foreboding cruelness of Don’t Look Now’s Venice tunnels and matter-of-fact poverty of City of God’s Rio de Janeiro burbs.

The movie is a celebration of a time we can all identify with. The days when any chore could be made fun from the simplest of pleasures, like blowing bubbles. A time when the smallest of rewards, like a shiny new pen, make all the difference. Ahhhhhh. Those were the days. But while adults look back in hindsight and think things were simpler, this film refreshes your inner child’s perspective so you see that, to them, their problems are just as huge as the struggles and responsibilities of their parents. Because of the lost shoes, these characters face ridicule at school, punishment at home, and an upset a sibling. Major events for any child.

And the children of this film certainly know the struggles of their parents – they often hear arguments involving the landlord and grocer, know their mother is ill, and know their father is barely scraping by – and it’s because of this recognition that they keep the shoe situation quiet.

Since the girl, Zahra, needs shoes to get to school, they decide to coordinate a schedule wherein she wears his sneakers to school in the morning and he wears them to school in the afternoon. (I can’t help but think an American remake would be playing The Beatles’ We Can Work It Out during a lame feel-good montage at this point.) But unforeseen mishaps often make the boy, Ali, late for school and keep him out of sports as well as make the young girl’s feet look like that of a clown, all of which contribute further strain on their relationship and dilemma.

But alas! There is hope. Heaven3In an expertly shot point-of-view sequence, Zahra spots her shoes on the feet of a classmate. But she can’t see who it is, as they are in the middle of an assembly in which she cannot move. Through very careful stalking, however, Zahra eventually tracks the girl down to her home. Perhaps hoping for proof that the girl is a pickpocket, Zahra and Ali are instead thrown a curveball when the girl turns out to be a sweetheart and her father a blind peddler. Their only hope for shoes is a long-distance race that Ali enters because the third place prize is a pair of sneakers, and since he runs to school every day he’s in prime condish. But little does he know that the race is country-wide and has hundreds of kids competing.

This is a sequence of events we’ve seen a million times. It’s “the big game” in every sports movie. Or at least that’s how the American version would be. (Insert one of Queen’s ballads here.) But this is anything but predictable; they’ve taken the cliché and turned it on its ear. The fantastic minimalism of the sounds – panting, the clapping of worn shoes, his sister’s voice haunting him. The unexpected disappointment at the result. It’s an unbelievable and welcomed twist, if only because we rarely see it go this way.

The entire film builds up in this way. We sit back and wait for the breaking point. We know the parents will eventually find out. It’s just a matter of time. And so while we wait for it we deliberate what their reaction will be. Perhaps the best part of the movie is that the reaction payoff never comes. But you can bet the American version would, and the music would swell as the whole family gathers in the center of the room for a hug. (All You Need is Love is a likely candidate.) It’s as if writer/director Majid Majidi created a plotline with every formulaic and cliché setup in the Hollywood book, but deliberately made the result exactly the opposite of what movie lovers would expect.

Majidi’s story and concept could not be more simple, yet it so easily segues into complex commentary. Take, for instance, a scene in which Ali and his father travel to a wealthy burb to look for work. At the surface this is merely another vignette of Ali’s attempts to get his sister shoes, yet it introduces great socioeconomic commentary by showing the stark contrast of the world of Ali and Zhara, and this foreign upper-class world. The movie itself is an empathetic story for the working class as well as a be-glad-of-what-you-have tale for the privileged. And it could also be very well construed as the most effective charity commercial ever filmed, because by the end you’re ready to buy new shoes for every elementary schooler in Iran.

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