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Golshifteh Farahani in a scene from Darioush
Mehrjoui's "Pear Tree"

Layers of meaning
Among other things, Iranian movies encourage a "good cry"

By Asghar Mossombagi
May 20, 1999
The Iranian

Last Sunday I finally made time to go and see Children of Heaven. I could no longer stand the onslaught of admonishing comments from both Iranian friends and non-Iranians who often gasped once they'd realized I hadn't seen the film.

My exposure to the so-called new Iranian cinema has not been vast, but I believe I have seen some of the best, including all of Kiarostami's major films; a few of Makhmalbaf's works; The White Balloon; Bahram Beizai's Bashu and a couple of more minor films. Kiarostami I love, even though Under the Olive Trees came close to being a self-parody made for the international festival market. But then A Taste of Cherry redeemed the reputation of arguably the best filmmaker Iranian cinema has ever produced.

I have found films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf derivative and full of recycled imagery. He is simply not very original and the emotional impact of his films are often compromised by simplistic didactivism or mimicry of other stronger filmmakers.

Children of Heaven is more or less in the same line as The White Balloon; it lacks the formal ambitions of Kiarostami's films or the militant post-modernism of Makhmalbaf's works. In their place it tells a good solid story of childhood innocence and tenacity with the kind of unabashed conviction the Western cinema gave up 30 years ago.

Children of Heaven is typical of the kind of Iranian films the Western audiences have come to expect with the almost specific-ness of a genre. The children often play a prominent role in most of the narratives. People live in these quaint old houses with wooden doors and communal washing pools with gold fish swimming ever so gently (is my memory failing me or the house in Children of Heaven is the same as the one in The White Balloon?) located in the narrow labyrinthine alley ways of southern Tehran.

The ending is often ironic, that is you feel good even though the journey has been hard (call it Iranians' Karbala complex, or the need for a "good cry" as my mother used to say after a rowzeh). And there is a strong reliance on realism of a poetic variety, beautiful images with layers of meaning.

It seems to me that distanced exoticism mixed with a lack of overt political elements in the most successful of recent Iranian films may be the key to their success in the West. The first time I watched The White Balloon I had this nagging feeling that the film was really aimed at a foreign market. For instance, anybody who knows anything about southern Tehran knows that the neighbourhoods depicted in the film are actually not the norm; one would be hard pressed to find houses with heavy wooden doors and decorative, be it rusty iron door knockers. The norm is the non-photogenic one and two story numbers that litter haphazard alleyways and narrow streets from Ghal-e Morghi and Javadieh to Meydan Shush.

But I guess as the director one has to pick the most cinematic locations, especially if one is telling a story that has the logic of a fairy tale. This is not of course unique to Iranian cinema, the same approach to marketing the exotic has been applied to marketing films from the mainland China in the past few years. There is no vast conspiracy in the works. It is just that the movie marketing machine has to find an angle to present any foreign film to the North American public and in case of the "orient" I assume it is easy to fall back on the old and reliable Orientalism.

What else could explain the total lack of attention having been paid to the works of Dariush Mehrjoui who by all accounts is the most popular of the so-called high brow filmmakers in Iran (Rakhsan Bani-Etemad is another prominent filmmaker practically unknown in the West). Mehrjoui's films often present stories of Iran's modern bourgouise and intellengensia and hence challenge Western notions of Iran as a mystical and dangerous blend of One Thousand and One Nights exoticism and hothead fundamentalism.

Mehrjoui of course is no stranger to the International film scene having attracted considerable attention in the early Seventies with his debut film The Cow and later on with The Circle. His films are often described as "too Western" and "unIranian" in the Western press. A recent travelling retrospective of his films organized by New York's Lincoln Center may change all of this and along with it introduce to the rest of the world a new dimension of the Iranian cinema.

- Send a comment to the writer, Asghar Mossombagi
- Send a comment for The Iranian letters section


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February 9, 1999
Heavenly children
Majidi's film deserves an Oscar
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