Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Song of Sparrows

I don't see enough movies from Iran to really know one way or another - there's an annual series of new Iranian film at either the Harvard Film Archive or Museum of Fine Arts (or maybe one at each), but I generally don't go out of my way for them - but what makes it to America certainly seems to be dominated by the minimalist, kind of artsy films. I seem to recall reading once, though I can't remember where, that other Persian filmmakers look down their nose at the stuff that makes it Europe and America, saying that those filmmakers are making films for western critics, rather than an actual Persian audience.

There's nothing conceptually wrong with that; nowhere is it written that film must be popular entertainment, or that one's neighbors should be the target audience. This isn't just true in foreign countries - in a post-film discussion, Korea's Kim Ki-duk and Thailand's Tsai Ming-liang came up - but there are certainly American filmmakers who don't get their due in their native land. As long as good movies are getting made, and we as an audience don't kid ourselves that we're seeing a representative sample of that nation's cinema, it's all good.

I will still be greatly amused if a trip to the cinema in Iran is less likely to involve something like Song of Sparrows (which, to be fair, does work fairly well as observational comedy) than one of the tamer Indian/Pakistani musicals or an Egyptian or Turkish action movie.

Avaze Gonjeshk-ha (The Song of Sparrows)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

I sometimes wonder how well movies like A Song of Sparrows do in their native lands. They are, if not exciting, then perhaps fascinating or hypnotic when they reach the west, a window into another world whose details my fascinate us. Does it capture the attention of someone actually living in Iran, though? Or is it something built for export, or even a case of selling something commonplace to the foreigner who wants to feel worldly?

I've seen it asserted that Iranian films are particularly notorious for this - that the minimalist auteurs whose films are eagerly awaited and dissected in western art houses are ignored back home, dismissed as boring. I don't know what sort of reception A Song of Sparrows received in Iran, but it does at least have the advantage, both at home and abroad, of being beautiful to look at and featuring more observational comedy than pure abstraction.

The film follows Karim (Mohammad Amir Naji), a middle-aged father of three who starts off working on an ostrich farm. His teenage daughter Haniyeh's (Shabnam Akhlaghi) hearing aid has just been damaged, and his hopes to get a second advance on his salary to pay for a new one are dashed when one of the birds escapes the corral, and he is instead fired. His luck changes somewhat when, on a trip into Tehran, a businessman hops onto the back of his motorcycle, taking it for a taxi, and Karim finds that there's money to be made there, perhaps enough to pay off his debts and purchase that hearing aid. The city is strange for a man from a small village, though, and perhaps corrupting.

That's a familiar theme, of course, but director Majid Majidi and his co-writer Mehran Kashani are, if not subtle in how they handle it, at least matter-of-fact. Karim's wife Narges (Maryam Akbari) does not wail about how the city has changed him, and he does not become outwardly callous toward his family. It's more demonstrative - we see, early on, that even on the day Karim loses his job, the ostrich egg he brought from the farm was something to be shared charitably, at Narges's discretion; later, he is angry that she gave something he scavanged from the city's scrap heaps away without his say-so. There's also enough initial flaws there to suggest that while the example set by the rude people in the city helps to lead Karim astray, he has a temper and a perhaps-dangerous level of pride to begin with.

The role fits Mohammad Amir Naji like a glove. Every shot of his face speaks to us of a lifetime of hard work just to get by, and while Naji is always fully invested in that, it's never the totality of his character; there's always love or confusion or that pride to go along with it. He's good at wringing a laugh from a double take or anguish from a realization of helplessness, but he's at his best when showing Karim as a concerned father, kind of tortured by both how he feels he's failed Haniyeh and how she acts as if everything is okay. It's also amusing to watch how he and Hamed Aghazi, who plays Karim's son Hussein, play off each other, with a lot of yelling about lacking common sense but quiet pride at what Hussein can do.

The film is beautifully shot, with Majidi and cinematographer Tooraj Mansouri taking full advantage of both the desolate deserts and scrublands of rural Iran as well as presenting Tehran as a bustling, growing city. Visual moments like Karim carting a blue door across the countryside or the arrayed goldfish used for the poster will stick in the audience's minds for a while. Majidi also displays a gentle sense of humor. He occasionally combines the two, getting some mileage out of ostriches being funny to look at. The quest to earn enough money to pay for Haniyeh's hearing aid gives the film just enough structure (although the subtitling on the release print lets us down a little here; we're initially given the price of a new device as four hundred dollars, but later references to money are in rials, with no exchange rate quoted), at least for a while. Toward the end, he starts to lose the thread, drawing some sequences out and relying more on randomness than character.

That's the point where this sort of slice-of-life movie can begin to lose me, and I'd be lying if I denied that I started getting the fidgets when Karim got lost trying to deliver a refrigerator. The Song of Sparrows manages to build up an impressive amount of goodwill before then, though, and enough interesting imagery after to make it to the finish line.

Also at HBS.

1 comment:

Film said...

"The Song Of Sparrow" ,the name of this film has no relation with its story. Really a great Iranian Film. Amazing Article.To know about Film look