Thursday, June 12, 2008

Children of Heaven

June 12, 2008

Children of Heaven (1999) *1/2

Directed by Majid Majidi

Call me heartless, but Children of Heaven did not win me over with its forced charm and its incessant reliance on the crying faces of children to tug hard at our heartstrings. I hold films that feature children in lead roles to a slightly higher standard. A scene involving an adult in peril does nothing to our sense of dread and anxiety when compared to that same scene substituted with a child. Children automatically make the audience that much more emotionally connected to a plot, and often, I believe that filmmakers tend to exploit that fact as an excuse to be lazy.

The makers of Children of Heaven took very cute and expressive kids, put them places and had them do stuff. When it’s all over, they edited everything in an over-stylized manner and called it a film. But my question is, “What is the purpose of this film?” Children of Heaven doesn’t seem to want to teach us much about life in Iran. These children are poor, but they by no means live in abject poverty. Life is difficult for these children, but they live with seemingly good, loving parents. Often the characters luck into situations, which seems almost cruel since so many in Iran can’t even hope for the opportunities that these characters are given.

In a deplorable sequence, nine year-old Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) and his father (Mohammad Amir Naji) bike ride to an upper class neighborhood and buzz on the intercoms asking around for gardening work. Everyone says no, that is until a little boy and his grandfather invite the two of them in. Ali gets to play and his father gets paid more money than he had imagined. So what’s that say about life in Iran? If your life is bad, just wait for that one break in life that’s going to come? The problem I have with this possibility is the sad reality that this is simply not true for well over ninety-nine percent of people living in poverty. We have opportunities in America that aren’t available in other parts of the world, like Iran. Therefore, the whole film felt like something set in Iran using Iranian actors but made for Americans who understand the American dream. Personally, I was offended by this use of poverty as a set piece.

The entire film revolves around a pair of shoes that Ali loses outside a grocery market. On the one hand, he does not want to be beaten by his father for losing the shoes, but on the other hand, he does not want to have to force his father to buy new ones since they have no extra money and their mother is ill. The shoes aren’t Ali’s, but instead they once belonged to his sister Zahra (Bahare Seddigi) who needs them to go to school. The two of them work out a plan so that she can run the shoes to Ali once her classes end which would give him just barely enough time to show up for his classes. He does show up late more than once for different legitimate reasons. Eventually, Ali learns that his school can enter a handful of students into a race. The third prize of the race is a brand new pair of sneakers. Ali decides to run the race in order to win third place and get the sneakers to give to his sister. Does he win third place? Well, let’s just say that if I gave you three guesses, I bet you’d figure out exactly what place he gets.

The lucky coincidences in the story feel disingenuous from the very beginning. Ali gets a pen from his teacher. His sister drops the pen only to get it back from the daughter of a blind man. This same daughter is now wearing the same shoes that once belonged to Zahra. She doesn’t try to get them back since her father is blind. The only thing worse than using children for cheap emotions is to use handicapped people for cheap emotions. Ali, after being late for the third time, is asked to leave the school, but one of his teachers talks to the principal who changes his mind and lets Ali stay. When Ali finds out about the race, he does not try out for it, but after learning the prize, begs his teacher to let him enter. The teacher finally gives in after timing Ali. Also, don’t forget about the gardening scene mentioned earlier. The final lucky scene is of the race itself, which is so overblown that I was glad that the end of the race was also going soon to bring about the end of this film.

Children of Heaven attempts to be an inspirational movie about hope. Life is Beautiful similarly attempts to show inspiration amongst the atrocities of the Holocaust. Many criticized that film for making light of the Holocaust. While I think Life is Beautiful is fantastic and actually respects the evil reality of that horrific event, Children of Heaven simply attempts to show how poor Iranians can lift themselves up by their bootstraps. The harsh realities of so many in the Middle East, especially today considering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, should not be manipulated into window dressing so that cute children can make rich American audiences go, “awww!”

(Note: I just read the following on In the English DVD version of the film, the epilogue is not translated. The epilogue explains that Ali eventually achieves the larger-scale success of having a racing career. (Of course he does! Grrrr!)