CHILDREN OF HEAVEN (BACHEHA-YE ASEMAN)(director/writer: Majid Majidi; cinematographer: Parviz Malekzade; editor: Hassan Hassandoost; cast: Amir Naji (Ali’s Father), Mir Farrokh Hashemian (Ali), Bahareh Seddiqi (Zahra), Nafiseh Jafar Mohammadi (Roya), Fereshteh Sarabandi (Ali’s Mother), Kamal Mir-karimi (The Principal), Behzad Rafi’i (The Coach); Runtime: 90; Miramax Films; 1997-Iran)
“The result is a perfectly safe film for living in a totalitarian country.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In this kidpic which is a very safe movie to make in today’s Iran as even with the intolerant dictator Khomeini dead and a more liberal regime in its place, there is still no room for anything politically overt to be in the film. There is still strict censorship in Iran. The most fertile ground to do some subversive sneaking in of dissension, is in a type of kidpic like this one where there is seemingly no challenge to the ongoing political system and its fundamentalist religious system. Everything here is seen through the children’s eyes. The only thing is that I couldn’t pick up any subtle attacks against the regime. Maybe it was too subtle for me to pick up, or maybe there were no dissensions and this film was just meant to be a tear-jerker.

The story is guileless. It is about a lost pair of shoes and a shared pair of sneakers. If it was an American film and didn’t give me a chance to see a country such as modern Iran, which I am unfamiliar with but curious to see how it looks under this new regime, I would have been really disappointed at how predictable the story was. But because it is Iran and I am aware how difficult it is to make a film under censorship there, I am more tolerant of its apolitical tone than I ordinarily would be.

When Ali, the 9-year-old, fails to come home with his younger sister Zahra’s shoes that he retrieved from being repaired at the shoe shop, this left the children with a big problem in their life. Their God fearing uneducated but honest parents who are impoverished, owing money to the landlord and the grocer, are in no position to get the child a new pair of shoes. Ali must get the shoes back, but he is not aware that a blind garbage collector took them by mistake. So rather than burden the parents with further money problems and get a beating besides and also unnecessarily excite his very sick mother who on doctor’s orders must not work, Ali devises a plan where he shares his sneakers with his sister so they both can go to school. They simply go to school in different shifts. It is possible for them to pull this switch off if their timing is perfect, but since their timing was off he keeps getting caught by the principal coming late to class; and besides, his sneakers are much too large for her, making their plight more dramatic. Why he doesn’t tell his teacher about this problem, I don’t understand. Especially, since his teacher seemed like a kind man; and, since this might be a problem that is not that uncommon in a school where a lot of the children are poor. But, then again, if he did that, that might have taken away the reason for making this slight film in the first place.

Most of the film takes place as we watch these two darling children run to make their classes, while switching Ali’s sneakers in an alleyway. It gives us a chance to see that most of the other children where their south Tehran neighborhood is, are also suffering from severe money problems. At one point of the film we will see how the rich live in the north side of Tehran in luxurious roomy houses, with clean drive-ways, with inter-coms and gated entrances, and with lush gardens in front of their houses. The problem the rich kids are shown to have, is from boredom. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, the film seems to be saying all kids are kids. We see how easily Ali becomes friends with one of the rich kids.

If this film was made in the States, its theme could be the NY state lottery theme, “You gotta be in it to win it.” The kids try to solve their dire problem by having the athletic Ali enter a marathon race for the city school kids, where third prize is to win a pair of sneakers. For Ali, he has to rely on his gym teacher to enter him because he was unaware of the race until it was too late to enter it himself. During the race the filmmaker pulls out a bagful of cinematography tricks and borrowed shots from other directors to make the race an exciting one, but a race that left me unimpressed with the trite point the filmmaker was making.

This “feel good” Iranian version of that old Hollywood standard formula tugs at the audiences’ heartstrings every chance it can get. We see how quickly tears fall from Ali’s wide oval eyes and a frown covers Zahra whenever bad news comes her way. I assume what the film is trying to say is — see how you must solve your problems on your own, don’t blame it on the government.

The few times Zahra does smile, her smile is a very warm and generous one. When a poor schoolgirl classmate of hers returns the pen she lost, she greets her with a big smile. Zahra’s brother got the pen from his teacher for being an excellent student. I guess the point being made is that both girls can be generous and have learned how to live with their poverty; and, that Ali will be rewarded if he excels in school.

The father’s poverty reflects the director’s own background, but in such a manipulative manner that it fails to be as convincing a portrayal as it could have been if it was done in a more free flowing form.

The father is seen as a true believer, never questioning authority, deeming everything to be in the hands of God; whereas, his religious beliefs are so strong, he would not even take a piece of sugar that he is chopping up for the mosque to have for his tea. This display of moral rectitude, reveals how simple things can be if you just have faith and perseverance to endure life’s hardships. Is this what the film is really trying to say?

When the father takes Ali by bike to the rich part of town, seeking work for them as gardeners, it is an eye-opening experience to see them pass through a modern and sleek city. They get lucky through Ali’s ability to talk to the rich people on the other side of town and land a job that pays them well; but, as to be expected, in this most manipulative of films, things quickly reverse as the father’s brakes fail and the bike crashes. So all the money they made goes for hospital bills and new brakes.

Children of Heavendoes humanize the Iranian people and show them to be a warm people, able to help out others in need as when Ali brings soup his mother made to their elderly neighbors. But as an impactful film, it falls on its face with a thud unable to make heaven seem to be a real place for children. Everything that is bitter is shown to be really fine despite what appears to be not so fine: rich people are not bad because they can be nice; schools are not that rigid because they can be accommodating; religion is unquestioned but that is because it is necessary; being poor can make you sad but it is not the worst thing in the world; and obedience is sometimes difficult to understand but it can be rewarding. The result is a perfectly safe film for living in a totalitarian country.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”