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Family Values, American and Iranian

The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition
January 22, 1999

Two movies concerned with kids and families open today; they are, to say the least, worlds apart. In Larry Clark's "Another Day in Paradise," life is hell for a murderous young addict and his girlfriend until they find surrogate parents -- and the fateful allure of criminal adventure -- in a couple of middle-aged outlaw junkies played by James Woods and Melanie Griffith. Vincent Kartheiser is the apprentice Clyde and Natasha Gregson Wagner is his Bonnie, a sweet, sad waif who sniffs cocaine because she's phobic about needles. I'm phobic too. I look away whenever movies show people shooting up, and there's a lot to look away from in this jittery, bloody and occasionally affecting film. Mr. Clark takes special pleasure in showing us long, graphic close-ups of needles going into bodies, as well as spasms of slaughter by stabbing or gunshot.

A needle also figures in the opening moments of Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven," a film from Iran in Farsi, with English subtitles, and an Academy entrant for best foreign film. No need to divert your gaze, though: The needle wielder here is a peaceful cobbler, and a long, graphic close-up shows a child's torn sandals under repair. Mr. Majidi's children are a third-grade boy, Ali, and his younger sister, Zahra; they live with their parents in a single room in contemporary Tehran. The filmmaker hangs his seemingly simple story on the loss of those sandals, and the kids' desperate, then resourceful, then triumphant efforts to hide the loss by sharing a pair of sneakers.

Both films are clearly products of their culture -- the one steeped in violence, and all too accessible to American audiences, the other emotionally muted and politically anodyne, a beguiling oddity. Yet each tries, with varying success, to transcend its genre, to escape from the prison of audience expectations. I was startled by how much "Children of Heaven" manages to make us see and feel within its narrow scope. I didn't like Mr. Clark's film, on the whole, but it's greatly superior to his debut feature, the affectless and repugnant "Kids." Shot for the most part with a handheld camera (by Eric Edwards), "Another Day in Paradise" makes little effort, at least at the outset, to keep any distance from its characters. Rather, it simulates reality by operating at their energy level. The camera tilts and spins as Vincent Kartheiser's Bobbie, in crackhead rapture, smashes vending machines for change; it stares wide-lensed at Mr. Woods's Mel and Ms. Griffith's Sid as they babble with druggy glee about their cross-country life of crime. (Mr. Kartheiser, with his baby face and his hair slicked back from a high forehead, is so engaging as to make us forget that Bobbie is a killer. Mr. Woods, as always, is high on his own mysterious energy, which, if synthesized, might be the answer to dwindling petroleum reserves.)

Little by little, however, a family of sorts coalesces. Mel ministers to the wounded Bobbie by shooting him up. Bobbie says, blissfully, "Good night, Dad." Later this lethal child beams with pleasure and gratitude when Mel gives him his first gun. Sid is more conventionally, and movingly, parental. "I'm no role model," she tells Ms. Wagner's Rosie. "I'm a junkie and a thief, and so are you." There's always something touching about Melanie Griffith -- a tacit plaintiveness, a sense that her successes are hard won -- but this is the best work of her career. Sid's dogged, doomed courage not only comforts Rosie and sets Bobbie free but touches the film with unexpected grace.

That grace is sorely needed, since Mr. Clark, a successful still photographer in a previous career, seldom throttles back from his frenzied pace or pulls back from his bloodshed; it's as if he's making up for all those years of shooting images that move only when you flip the page. While his new film is skillfully made, and challenges our suppositions in interesting ways, there's a grinding sameness to the action and, notwithstanding moments of surprising tenderness, a derivative quality to the drama; it doesn't tell us much we don't know or haven't seen in who knows how many outlaw sagas before it. "Another Day in Paradise" wants to serve a sumptuous feast for sensation junkies, but little sticks to the bones.

"Children of Heaven," on the other hand, is spare and rich at the same time. With limited resources -- this is the cinematic equivalent of community theater -- the writer-director, Mr. Majidi, spins a funny, trenchant yarn about limited resources. The little boy, Ali (played by round-faced Mir Farrokh Hashemian, who proves that a little boy can have a huge tragicomic demeanor), has been sent to pick up his sister Zahra's sandals from the cobbler's shop, but they disappear on his way home. How much of a genuine tragedy this represents is hard to gauge. The children's father is an unemployed laborer; their mother is laid up with a bad back. Maybe they can afford a new pair of shoes and maybe they can't, but Ali doesn't think they can, so confessing is out of the question. Instead, he hatches a plot in which Zahra wears his sneakers to school each morning and he wears them each afternoon.

Is it enough of a plot to carry a movie? Well, no and yes. If sneaker sneakery were the whole story, "Children of Heaven" would lose us somewhere around the second or third breathless exchange of footwear. (Zahra always shows up late because Ali's sneakers are too big for her to run in.) But "Children of Heaven" holds us -- at least it held me -- because the plot is not just a plot, with an amusingly implausible feelgood climax, but a pretext for watching solemn, adorable kids as they struggle with the mysteries of their world. How can Ali explain his tardiness to his teacher? He cannot. What should Zahra do when her precious sandals turn up on a schoolmate's feet? She doesn't have a clue, but we can almost hear the synapses crackling in her brain as she stares groundward.

Those who recall the unadorned beauties of Vittorio De Sica's 1947 masterpiece "The Bicycle Thief" will have special appreciation for a sequence in which Ali rides the handlebars while his Turkish immigrant father (played with stern tact by Amir Naji) pedals into the flossy precincts of North Tehran -- which could pass for Beverly Hills -- searching for gardening work. The drama here is wrenching: Father, far from knowing best, makes a stumbling, mumbling botch of his appeals until Ali intercedes. What I recall most vividly, though, is how the expedition ends -- with failing bike brakes, followed by a wild downhill ride -- and how fearful I was for the riders' safety. That's the fascinating thing about "Children of Heaven" and many unadorned films like it. Watching it reminds us that movies still can work in simple, relatively pure ways.

I don't mean to suggest that Majid Majidi has made anything close to a masterpiece -- some of his simplicities get a little sticky, if truth be told -- or to ignore the sensory pollution most of us must live with. When car alarms go off we ignore them. When commercials come on we unconsciously tune them out. In our world it isn't easy to be entertained by simple fare; special effects and dazzling stars keep upping the ante. Still, I'm glad to have seen "Children of Heaven," and grateful for its refresher course in how to see. Watching odd-shaped loaves of bread come out of a cistern-like oven, watching Ali and Zahra run heedlessly down an alley, watching Zahra chasing a shoe as it floats down a rivulet in a gutter, watching her silently watching the wearer of her shoes, I was all eyes.


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