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A Spiritual Vision Imbues The Trials Of a Blind Boy

The New York Times
September 25, 1999

In one way or another, the cinema of every nationality addresses the tenuous relationship of man and nature (in the United States it tends to be through bloated disaster epics like "Twister"). But in Iran this grandest of themes is almost a national obsession. And in Majid Majidi's stunningly beautiful film, "The Color of Heaven," that relationship is evoked with an ecstatic sensuousness along with an awed awareness of nature's destructive power that are nothing less than extraordinary.

As much as any film can, this explicitly religious movie offers a visionary experience of the natural world. Moving through fields of flowers and misty forests, across streams and into the craggy backwoods country, "The Color of Heaven" makes sure that we hear as well as see the rugged Iranian landscape in all sorts of weather. The soundtrack is a constantly shifting chorus of birds (especially woodpeckers), insects, wind and rain. In the forest scenes, an ominous, possibly supernatural cry is occasionally heard from afar.

This soundtrack is especially significant because the movie focuses on the uncertain fate of a blind 8-year-old boy, Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani), whose widowed father (Hossein Mahjur) balks at caring for him. While the movie makes us continually aware of the sounds Mohammad hears, it also shows us the beauty he is unable to see. Paradoxically, it suggests that his sensory attunement to the environment is unusually acute and his experience of nature as full as anyone's.

In the opening scene, Mohammad finds himself alone outside a Teheran school for the blind after it empties for the three-month summer break. Fearful that his father will never appear, the boy scuffles about outdoors by himself, his face clenched in fear and despondency. Digging through some leaves, he uncovers a baby bird that has tumbled to the earth. But by groping the trunk and branches of a nearby tree, he succeeds in finding the nest and reuniting the bird with its mother.

Eventually his father shows up and asks one of the teachers whether Mohammad could remain at the school permanently. Told no, the father reluctantly brings his son back to the family's rural woodland home, where Mohammad reunites with his two young sisters and beloved grandmother (Salameh Feizi). The frail, deeply religious matriarch, who adores the little boy, is appalled by her son's reluctance to care for Mohammad. And the growing strife between Mohammad's father and grandmother constitutes the movie's main dramatic thread.

Over the grandmother's fierce objections, Mohammad is left in the care of a blind carpenter who promises to train the boy as his apprentice. A scene in which Mohammad breaks down in tears over his abandonment and his blindness is utterly heart-wrenching. Although the film sympathizes with the father, who is impoverished, desperately hard-working and eager to marry a young woman from a strict Islamic family, it ultimately takes the grandmother's side by suggesting that the father's reluctance to care for Mohammad is a sin that is certain to be punished.

"The Color of Heaven," which the New York Film Festival is showing today at 3 P.M. and tomorrow at 9:30 P.M. at Alice Tully Hall, leans a bit too much toward the lachrymose and has a wrong-note final image. These are the minor flaws of a devastating movie and yet another gem to spring from one of the world's most vital national cinemas.


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