`Heaven' a sight to behold

Review: Beauty, extraordinary characters and dignity fill heartbreaking tale from Iran.

April 27, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Imagine a story wrought with as fine a hand as O. Henry, brought to the screen with the gentle humanism of Satyajit Ray and Vittorio de Sica, and you get an idea of the quiet power of "Children of Heaven," currently playing at the Charles Theatre.

Written and directed by the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi ("Baduk," "God is Coming"), "Children of Heaven" is aptly named, despite the fact that its young protagonists live in poverty in a crumbling neighborhood in Tehran. Even in the face of difficulty, Majidi's extraordinary characters virtually levitate by virtue of their own dignity, wisdom and compassion.

Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) is doing errands for his mother one day when he loses a pair of shoes belonging to his little sister Zahra (Bahare Sediqi). An innocent over- sight, one would think, and not fraught with dire consequences. But Ali and Zahra's family lives on such a narrow margin of subsistence that an otherwise simple matter of lost shoes assumes cataclysmic proportions. The children vow not to tell their ill mother or overbearing father (Amir Naji), who works as a tea vendor. Instead, they share Ali's one pair of sneakers, while the overwrought boy tries desperately to think of how to get Zahra a pair of shoes.

Filmgoers will no doubt mark the similarities between "Children of Heaven" and de Sica's "Bicycle Thief" (which, coincidentally, can also be seen at the Charles this week). But Majidi has made a film all his own, evoking Ali and Zahra's experience so vividly that viewers feel they've entered their world completely, yet with such delicacy that every glance and visual detail conveys unusually expressive power. (Majidi's gift for observation is obvious from the movie's opening shot, where two hands can be seen sewing a pair of battered pink shoes with a surgeon's assurance. Clearly these shoes are needed by someone who can't afford a new pair.)

Majidi has found two exceptional young actors to star. Hashemian and Sediqi imbue their 9-year-old and 7-year-old characters with such maturity and complexity that they make most American adult actors look like pikers by comparison. (They also remind Americans that innocence doesn't necessarily have to come in the ingratiatingly formulaic packages Hollywood purveys.)

"Children of Heaven" will surprise filmgoers for many reasons, not least in making them wish that Ali would lose a foot race. But most of all, it will astonish in its ability to break your heart, even as it fills it to bursting.

`Children of Heaven'

Starring Mohammad Amir Naji, Mir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi

Directed by Majid Majidi

Released by Miramax Films

Rated PG (some mild language)

Running time: 87 minutes

Sun score: ***1/2

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