A little blind boy named Mohammad sits on a bench outside his school in Tehran. It is the beginning of summer vacation and parents from all over Iran have come to collect their children. We have seen the rapturous embraces, mothers and fathers scooping up their children, kissing them. Mohammad’s father is late. He has to take a bus in from very far away. So Mohammad sits alone and waits. The air is filled with sound. He is alive to every nuance. He hears a bird chirping, and he goes to investigate. He walks without a cane, his hands out in front of him, feeling his way with his feet, and with his ears. He gets down on his hands and knees, and slowly, gently, starts feeling through the fallen leaves. A cat approaches, meows, and Mohammad, alert, throws a rock in the general direction of the cat, scaring it off. Mohammad’s sensitive fingers comes across what he knew would find in the leaves: a fallen baby bird, chirping pitifully. Gently yet surely, he picks up the baby bird and puts it in his pocket. Mohammad is not done. He feels his way forward to the nearest tree, and begins to climb. It is not easy-going and I feared for the bird in his pocket. Mohammad’s feet struggle for a grip on the smooth trunk, and he reaches up and out with his hands, for the branches he cannot see. There is a chirping bird somewhere up there, a bird who knows that something disastrous has occurred. Mohammad reaches out, tentatively, feeling through the leaves, following the sound. Finally, his fingers bump up against the nest, with a chirping panicked mother-bird inside. A smile bursts out on Mohammad’s face, and he carefully takes the baby bird out of the pocket and places it back inside the nest.
This extraordinary sequence takes place in the first 10 minutes of The Color of Paradise, directed by Majid Majidi, and is a cliffhanger of action and emotion. It plays with no music, just the sounds of the natural world, the leaves, the wind, the birds, the meow, and it works on such a profound and emotional level (I had no idea how it would turn out: would the baby bird be crushed? would Mohammad fall from the tree? would he be able to find the nest?) that I was moved to tears. I cannot remember another time when I was moved to tears so early in a film, invested so entirely in the emotional journey of the character, without knowing a thing about him. So much information is conveyed in the first 10 minutes, and it is done so with a minimum of melodrama or exposition, and it carries us through the rest of the film. While we have no reason to believe at that time that Mohammad’s father being late is anything other than a momentary disappointment, there is an undercurrent in a conversation Mohammad has with his kindly teacher that is eloquent of deeper issues. So Mohammad sits alone, and for a moment he seemed to me to be a forlorn figure. He looked so small and fragile, and that’s not even taking into account his blindness. The bird-rescue moment removed any hint of pity for this highly capable and brave little boy, who knew what to do in such a situation, and could easily distinguish between normal bird-chirps and “help me” bird-chirps. He was fine. He was better than fine: he was an amazing little kid.
All of this with no dialogue. And so, for the rest of the film, where we see him being mistreated by his father, who is so ashamed by his son’s blindness he can’t deal with him at all, we are devastated.
Majid Majidi is one of my favorite current Iranian film-makers. A highly memorable movie-going experience was seeing a matinee of Majidi’s Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven at The Angelika with my friend Kate.
Children of Heaven is a movie about kids (as so many films from Iran are), and so the audience was packed with adults who had brought their children. The fact that the film has subtitles did not deter these parents at all, and good for them. Children of Heaven played like gangbusters for that audience, with little kids shouting in excitement during the race at the end and little kids bursting into laughter watching the little girl run along with giant sneakers emerging from beneath her veil. Kate and I were thrilled by the film, and thrilled by watching it with a bunch of school-age children who not only “got it”, but loved it, loudly! Majidi’s Children of Heaven has a lot of things to say about the class divide in Tehran. But it’s also about a smart little brother and sister who find themselves in a bind, and come up with an ingenious (and sometimes ridiculous) plan to keep their parents from finding out. Kate said to me when we left the theatre, “I suddenly felt sad in that last scene” (where the little boy puts his feet in the small fountain and stares down at the red fish swimming around). I asked her why she felt sad, because I had felt sad too. And she said, “Because does anyone realize how incredible this little boy is? How smart he is? I want someone to TELL him how great he is!”
Majidi is a master of filming childhood. (He also wrote the scripts for both Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise: these are highly personal films, a vision of how he sees the world.) Majidi understands the seriousness of childhood, its isolations and fears. He also understands innocence, and how it operates. He cherishes that innocence, with little sentimentality. The brother and sister in The Children of Heaven are not idealized. They bicker, they hiss in annoyed whispers at each other, she refuses to go along with the plan at first, throwing him an eloquent look that says, “You want me to do WHAT? NO. WAY.” They feel like real little kids. And the children in The Color of Paradise are not idealized either. They behave like recognizable little kids, with tantrums, and giggling fits, and the sweet nonchalance of little citizens who do not yet realize that the world will be unfair.
Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani) comes from the fertile mountainous area north of Tehran. His grandmother (Salameh Feyzi) has a farm up there, where she grows alfalfa and other things, living with her son, Mohammad’s father (Hossein Mahjoub), and Mohammad’s two adorable sisters. Mohammad’s mother is dead. He has been placed in the Tehran Institute for the Blind, and he boards there during the school year, but during the summer he has to go home. In the opening sequence of the film, we see the little blind boys in class, creating pages of Braille with a plastic device, the teacher dictating to them as she strolls the aisles. We see the boys in their dormitory: one kid is playing a Casio, a teacher hands out cookies, Mohammad looks through the gifts he has chosen to bring home to his family. It is a good atmosphere, one of learning and possibility.
When Mohammad’s father finally arrives to pick him up, he looks upon his son with shame and resentment. He meets with the teacher and the headmaster and sees if he could just leave Mohammad there for the summer. They both say, “Uhm, no. We aren’t that kind of school.” Mohammad and his dad ride on a bus up north and trek across fields and hills to get back to the village. His father sits in a morose pained silence. He doesn’t ask how school went, he is not interested in Mohammad’s thoughts on the school year. Mohammad is a burden to this man.
While Mohammad’s father withholds love from his son, Mohammad’s sisters and grandmother welcome him back with open arms. They stand quietly, while Mohammad feels across their faces (and, in one moment that killed me, after feeling his younger sister’s face, he says in awe, “You have grown up so much.”), and coo excitedly over the gifts he has brought. Granny is an elderly white-haired woman, stooped from working in the fields, but tears of happiness comes to her eyes when she looks upon Mohammad again. This is a good family. Too bad Mohammad’s father is too consumed with self-pity to join in the celebration.
In a later scene, Granny comes across a flooded path after a rainfall and notices a poor fish, flopping stranded in water that is too shallow. She stoops down, scoops up the fish, and moves it to a deeper area. We think back on Mohammad saving the stranded bird. We know now where that impulse to protect and do the right thing comes from. Mohammad gets upset at one point, when his sisters go off to the village school and he is not allowed to follow. He cries on the porch, and Granny comforts him, saying, “Please don’t cry. When you cry, I feel like crying.” Salameh Feyzi has no other acting credits to her name. It doesn’t matter. She brings with her the authority of an entire lifetime lived, etched into her face, her rough hands. It is a very intelligent and complex performance.
In a powerful moment, late in the film, Granny sits in the house, tears in her eyes. Her son ministers to her, and tries to defend his treatment of Mohammad. She looks at him, with pity, and says, “I’m not worried about him. I’m worried about you.” His expression is devastated. What a difficult loving thought. And what an indictment on his behavior with his own child.
Mohammad’s father has been courting a wealthy woman in the area. He rides his horse to her house, offering gifts to her family. He assures his future in-laws that his “daughters will serve” his new wife. Not a word is said of Mohammad, an ominous sign. There are hints that Mohammad’s father suffers from either PTSD or some kind of mental illness. While Mohammad sits in the forest, listening to all of the bird calls, smiling, wondering what the birds are talking about, Mohammad’s father is haunted by the caw-cawing of a bird that seems to blast from a loudspeaker. It sounds like the bird is laughing derisively.
Meanwhile, life goes on for Mohammad: he knows his father does not love him, but as long as he is supported and buoyed up (by either his nice teachers at the school in Tehran, or by his grandmother and siblings at home), life is very good. He talks with his grandmother about woodpeckers. He runs with his sisters through fields. He sits with his grandmother who is making dough, and he taps out Braille messages in the dough with his fingers. He listens to bird calls, and the rushing of the nearby river, and spells out the names of things in a whisper.
His sisters’ village school is still in session, and he begs to be allowed to tag along. No, is the answer. After Mohammad has a meltdown about it, Granny caves and walks him to the one-room schoolhouse. The teacher comes out to meet Mohammad, who carries with him his Braille book, and announces that he is up to speed on lessons, he knows his sums, he’s ready to join the class. One of my favorite scenes in the film (but there are so many) shows the class reading out loud from their story-book, and Mohammad, following along in the Braille version, corrects people’s verb tenses and word pronunciation. The teacher (and I recognized him immediately as the petty-tyrant gym teacher in Children of Heaven) stares down at Mohammad, and I thought he was annoyed at the interruptions, I thought he was about to scold Mohammad for his arrogance and presumption. But this simple rural man stops the class and asks Mohammad, “Are you reading?” Mohammad says Yes, and he begins to read out loud, his fingers scanning across the Braille figures. Fascinated, the teacher moves forward to get a closer look. This gives the rest of the class permission, and the little boys and girls creep forward to peek over Mohammad’s shoulder.
The teacher finally realizes he has lost control of the class, and barks, “Back to your seats! Now!” But he had been amazed, too. The film is full of funny human moments like that.
But events begin to fracture, the tension boiling over. As Mohammad’s father begins the plans for his upcoming wedding, he knows he must get rid of his son. He has heard of a blind carpenter in another village, who is self-sufficient, and has his own business. He wants to give Mohammad to this man, as an apprentice. Mohammad is not consulted. Granny is not consulted. While there is no shame in manual labor, there is no reason to believe that Mohammad couldn’t do anything he wanted to do in life. He can read, he is a good student, he is intelligent and curious. Being blind barely seems to impact him. In a heartwrenching scene, Mohammad’s father drags him off to the carpenter’s one day, Mohammad kicking and screaming. The carpenter lives in a shack in a forest, with a workshop filled with tools and wood. Mohammad is traumatized. The carpenter shows him around, shows him where he will be sleeping, takes him outside to show him the different kinds of wood. The carpenter says, “Men don’t cry.”
Mohsen Ramezani is about 10 years old. He has no other acting credits to his name, either. He is one of those beautifully unselfconscious and natural children who populate Iranian cinema. It does not feel like an acting performance. It feels like a real experience is unfolding before our eyes. His tears are not the tears of a precocious young actor, facile in manipulating his own emotions. His tears come from his guts, from a primal and personal place of pain. It’s unbelievable. Sitting there with the carpenter, Mohammad sobs:
Our teacher says that God loves the blind more because they can’t see. But I told him if it was so, He would not make us blind so that we can’t see Him. He answered “God is not visible. He is everywhere. You can feel Him. You see Him through your fingertips.” Now I reach out everywhere for God till the day my hands touch Him and tell Him everything, even all the secrets in my heart.
That is a tough monologue, full of sophisticated themes and images, things that obviously interest Majid Majidi. It wouldn’t surprise me if that monologue was the first thing Majidi wrote of the script: Here is what the film will be about. Ramezani plays it with such ease that I wept for him, I wept for him to see God through his fingers, I wept for the fact that his father was failing to recognize how beautiful and awesome his son was (again: I thought of my friend Kate’s words about the final scene in Children of Heaven), and I wanted to comfort him. His pain is raw.
The carpenter listens to Mohammad, and his only response is a quiet comment, “Your teacher is right.”
Majid Majidi is interested in the ways in which God operates in our lives. Obviously, the natural world is very important here: cold rushing water, woodpeckers, alfalfa plants, flower petals, are all God’s visible presence in our world. Mohammad seems to seek out that presence with more consciousness than others. He is precocious in that respect, while, at the same time, he is a normal little boy who wants to be loved, and fears abandonment. Mohammad Davudi was the cinematographer for The Color of Paradise, and in grand panoramic shots he catches the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, of the earth, really: steep hillsides covered in pine trees, fog obscuring the mountaintops, a field ablaze with purple, yellow, and red flowers. We see the world through Mohammad’s eyes. It is a tactile and visceral world. The “soundtrack” clamors with voices: birds of all kinds, the rustling of trees, the rushing roar of water and waves. The film is a sensuous pleasure to behold.
The camerawork is subtle and unobtrusive, and when the camera moves, it really means something. There are quite a few of what I found myself referring to as “God’s-eye-view” shots: the camera placed high above a character, and sometimes slowly panning down to ground level. There’s deep resonance in these camera moves: Mohammad sits alone on a wood pile, or in the woods waiting for his father to finish up with one of his manual labor jobs, and he sits alone in the frame, listening to the sounds. When the camera pans in on him, it feels as though it becomes that Invisible Presence he seeks out, the camera is the eye “seeing” him. Nobody is insignificant to God.
Hossein Mahjoub, as Mohammad’s father, often behaves in an unforgivable manner, but his performance is a great and accurate portrait of the poison of self-pity. Self-pity blinds this man, blinds him in a far more severe manner than his own actually-blind son. When things go wrong for him, he collapses. He does not have resilience. He does not have the ease with other people that he envies in his son. He knows that he has come up lacking, as a man, in his mother’s eyes. He is closed to the goodness of life. You know that even if he did marry this new woman, he’d probably find a way to mess it up, especially with the sin of how he abandoned his son on his conscience.
In this way, The Color of Paradise is a morality tale.
The final ten minutes were so harrowing, terrifying, and emotional that I feel like I barely breathed during that entire time. Something goes wrong, horribly, and while there is a possibility of emotional and spiritual redemption, it might come too late. Is the film a tragedy or a comedy? It has elements of both. Majidi feels no need to choose. Until the very last shot, I did not know which way it would go.
And, in retrospect, Majidi ends it the only way it could go. I needed to be mopped up off the floor as the credits began to roll.
The Color of Paradise is a profound experience.