'The Children of Heaven': For a Pair of Sneakers, Longing,
Lies and a Plan
By JANET MASLIN
The New York Times
January 22, 1999
The young hero of Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven" is played
by Mir Farrokh Hashemian, a desolate-looking boy with huge brown eyes and
a way of sending tears suddenly rolling down his cheeks. Those tears well
up with some regularity during this film about 9-year-old Ali, his younger
sister Zahra (Bahareh Seddiqui) and their scheme for sharing a pair of
his tattered sneakers. The children want to hide the fact that Zahra's
shoes have been lost because this will be a hardship for their parents.
The family's carefully detailed poverty, which reflects the filmmaker's
own childhood experience, colors everything that happens in this story.
Events in the film are seen through the children's ingenuous eyes, as
is so often and artfully the case in Iranian films. (A child's-eye view
is, among other things, helpful in circumventing government censors.)
But in the more honest, less manipulative films that this one resembles
-- especially the graceful work of Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon,"
"The Mirror") -- what the young characters observe is liable
to be more surprising than it is here. In "Children of Heaven,"
life is sweet despite countless hardships, and no reality beyond the economic
intrudes upon a fairy tale atmosphere. Only through heavy-handed emphasis
does the quest for new sneakers take on any greater meaning.
In "Children of Heaven," life in Tehran is documented in everyday
detail, from the less desirable potatoes available to Ali's family to the
way a woolen garment is carefully unraveled so it can be knitted into something
else. Eking out a living is especially tough for a family of Turkish origin
living in the southern part of the city, a neighborhood duly contrasted
with a wealthy area in the north.
One of the film's most elaborate episodes finds Ali and his father (Amir
Naji) undertaking a punishing bike ride so that the father can seek gardening
work among Tehran's rich. It's typical of Majidi's reliance on the expected
that this journey of hope ends in frustration. And that a lonely rich child
materializes out of nowhere, eager to make Ali his instant best friend.
The film's two young stars are as guileless as possible, even when the
film contrives to turn the shoe issue into its main dramatic focus. Ali
and Zahra meet secretly in the middle of each school day to pass along
the sneakers, but that proves to be no solution. Zahra is hampered by ill-fitting
shoes at the rigorous girls' school that she attends. (The film is a production
of Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young
Adults, so all school scenes look beneficial and wholesome.)
And Ali, against all odds, determines to run a long-distance race and
win the third-place prize of running shoes for Zahra. Not since Rocky left
the boxing ring has a sporting contest been filmed as momentously as this
"Children of Heaven" does provide a kindly, enveloping sense
of Iranian life and customs, from the way the family prepares sugar cubes
to be served at a mosque to the way Zahra helps care for elderly neighbors.
These moments come more easily to Majidi than his studiously bittersweet
ending for what is, despite its surface bleakness, an essentially sunny
'THE CHILDREN OF HEAVEN'
Written (in Farsi, with English subtitles) and directed by Majid Majidi;
director of photography, Parviz Malek-zadeh; edited by Hassan Hassan-doost;
music by Keivan Jahan-shahi; produced by Donah Film Co.; released by Miramax
RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes.
RATING: This film is not rated.
CAST: Amir Naji (Ali's Father), Mir Farrokh Hashemian (Ali), Bahareh Seddiqi
(Zahra), Nafiseh Jafar Mohammadi (Roya), Fereshteh Sarabandi (Ali's Mother),
Kamal Mir-karimi (the Principal) and Behzad Rafi'i (the Coach).