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Seeing is believing
A blind boy listens to woodpeckers and tries to catch the wind. In Iran, brilliant movies are made of such small moments

By Philip French
The Observer, London
August 8, 2000

FROM OEDIPUS REX through King Lear to the present, blindness has been among the most potent of dramatic metaphors. From its early days, the cinema has featured blind characters, usually - though not always - presented as people of serene temperament and superior virtue.

One thinks of the sentimental treatment of the beautiful flowerseller in City Lights or the hermit in The Bride of Frankenstein whose blank eyes see past the unattractive exterior of the little tramp and the hideous monster to find the essential goodness beneath.

Rather more subtle is the relationship between the honourable rabbi who is going blind in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and the moral blindness of the ophthalmologist who rejects his counsel.

The irony for movie audiences, whether watching something as simple as the blind Audrey Hepburn confronting a band of criminals in Wait Until Dark or as complex as viewing the world through the mind of the blind Michele Morgan in La Symphonie Pastorale , is that we are having an experience denied to the blind.

This is all by way of preface to yet another remarkable film from Iran, the 40-year-old Majid Majidi's The Colour of Paradise , a major contribution to the cinema of blindness and one of the most moving experiences I've had in the cinema this past couple of years.

It begins on the last day of term at a boarding school for the blind in Tehran where the little boys are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their parents to take them home for the holidays. But the eight-year-old Mohammed's widowed father doesn't arrive and he sits alone in the school garden, a small, infinitely sad presence, his wary open face expressing both his loneliness and his heightened sensitivity to sound, smell and touch.

A cat stirs among the bushes and we hope it will come to comfort Mohammed. Instead, the boy scares the cat away, throwing stones at it, an act we interpret as an expression of anger and frustration. But we are wrong. He's heard the faint sound of a fledgling among the fallen leaves and after finding the little bird he puts it in his shirt pocket and with immense difficulty he climbs a tree, locates the nest and puts the bird back where it belongs.

This wordless sequence is beautiful and affecting. It is also, we later discover, a central metaphor, because Mohammed's father, Hashem (Hosein Mahjoob), wants to leave the boy at the school and only with the greatest reluctance takes him home to be with his beloved sisters and elderly grandmother.

Hashem is a struggling smallholder with a job in a little charcoal factory in a beautiful, verdant part of rural Iran quite near the sea and unlike the dusty, desert setting of most Iranian pictures. He is planning to remarry a younger woman and regards Mohammed as a major encumbrance, yet another curse placed on him by a cruel deity.

When Hashem leaves his son as a live-in apprentice with a blind carpenter, the grief-stricken Mohammed, a true believer, thinks that he has been rejected by the omnipresent, invisible God, a being as accessible to the blind as to the sighted. Eventually, in an melodramatic finale worthy of D.W. Griffith in his prime, the film is resolved on an ambiguous note of tragic hope.

The film could not work without the surface simplicity of Majidi's unaffected direction and the magnificent performance by the blind Mohsen Ramezani, with whom the director has clearly established a strong rapport. There is something beatific about the boy, but there's no trace of sentimentality or sanctimoniousness in the way he's presented. We enter his world, experiencing his joys and pains, his delight in nature, his love for his grandmother, his wish to be treated like a normal member of the community.

There are scenes in this picture that etch themselves into the spectator's brain. In the bus going home, Mohammed holds his hand outside the window: 'I want to catch he wind.' he says. He takes his grandma's hand, telling her that the skin she thinks calloused by hard work is beautiful - 'Your hands are white.' He touches his little sister's face, telling her she's growing up.

Visiting the village school he astonishes the pupils by reading with absolute fluency the Braille text of the same primer they've been stumbling over and they gather round him in wonder. He listens to the woodpeckers and tries to work out their tapping as a form of code, analogous to Braille.

With this film coming so soon after the Cannes screening of the the 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards , there can be no doubting that another formidable generation of Iranian filmmakers is emerging, and that they have a peculiar sensitivity to the young and vulnerable.



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