WHITE BALLOON, THE (Badkonake sefid)

(director/editor: Jafar Panahi; screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami; cinematographer: Fardaz Jowdat; cast: Aida Mohammadkhani (Razieh), Moshen Kalifi (Ali), Fereshteh Sadr Orfani (Mother), Anna Bourkowska (Old Lady), Aliasghar Samadi (Balloon Seller), Mohammad Shahani (Soldier), Mohammad Bahktiari (Tailor ); Runtime: 84; Electric/CMI/Farabi/Fredos; 1995-Iran)

“The brilliance of the film, is in its simplicity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a non-political, neo-realist kidpic, set in Iran and told from the vantage point of a 7-year-old girl Razieh (Aida). To celebrate the New Year on the first of the spring she desires a fat goldfish she sees in the shop — which costs $100 tomans, instead of the skinny ones she has at home. Goldfish, for the Iranian celebrants, are symbols of life.

What is truly amazing about this masterly done film is how gracefully it uses real time to take you into the countdown for the New Year, that is marked off by repeated radio reminders.

Meanwhile, a small radius of Tehran that is familiar to the girl but not really known to her, is seen through her wide-open eyes as she walks home from shopping with her mother (Sadr). She is constantly watched by her mother, but is childishly curious about the shops and the group of men who hang-out around the snake charmers. That is a place she is forbidden to go to. When the shoppers arrive home we are not invited inside their home as if we were intruders, but we see their courtyard and we get a pretty good idea how this middle-class family lives.

Razieh’s mother is upset with her because she did not follow her closely while shopping and because she can’t stop talking and whining about the chubby goldfish she wants to buy, begging her to give her the money to buy the goldfish. At home we meet Aida’s older brother (Mohsen), who returns from an errand for his father. The father is not seen because he is showering, but we hear him get angry at Moshen for bringing him soap instead of shampoo.

The brother says Razieh is crazy to want the goldfish: “You can see two movies for that amount of money.” But Razieh is not dissuaded and manages to bribe her brother by giving him her blue balloon, in exchange he will talk in her behalf to their mother; and, he talks his mother into giving him a $500-toman note to purchase the fish, if he brings back the change. When he returns with the banknote he is surprised as Aida grabs the money out of his hand and rushes out to purchase the fish, going against her mother’s wishes for her to be out alone in the streets of Tehran.

Razieh meets again the snake charmers, and her curiosity can’t resist watching them. They cheat Razieh out of her money, but she manages to get the money back. By this time, we are sucked into accepting the tremendous importance the money and goldfish has for the girl.

For the Iranians this time of year is not unlike our Christmas season when we have a desire to please our children with gifts whether or not the gifts are worth it or not, they have an intrinsic value above their real worth and we feel happy when we see the joy in their children’s eyes when they receive their gifts.

The brilliance of the film, is in its simplicity. The story that unfolds is about the little girl’s adventure with the shop owners and the strangers in the street she is not supposed to talk to but does. We get caught up in it, because it is so universally understood. We forget that we are talking about Iran, the country that we demonized, our arch enemy. If the film can be criticized, it is for glossing over any of the numerous wrongs in their society that weren’t mentioned. Though, I think, that might be unfair, since the movie should be judged for its own sake and not for any outside political reasons.

The little girl, once again, loses the banknote; it falls down a street grating. Razieh asks a tailor to help, but the tailor doesn’t listen, he is too consumed by a customer. From the girl’s anxious eyes, we see how aloof adults can be to a child. It is interesting to see how different the tailor can be when with another adult, the woman customer who comes to the little girl’s aid and talks to the tailor in her behalf.

The remainder of the film is about Razieh’s attempt to recover the money with her brother, now, by her side.

Finally, an Afghan balloon seller is recruited to help Razieh recover the banknote. He helps them accomplish the task; but, when this is done the girl and her brother run off gleefully to their home to celebrate the New Year, and the busy street starts to empty out as everyone is rushing home. The final shot is of the Afghan boy, smiling just seconds ago, now saddened, alone with just one white balloon that he did not sell. This film ends with our impression of him lingering in our minds. The little girl’s adventure seems to be just one little story told; and, now, we can easily forget about her. But the Afghan’s loneliness remains etched in our mind, as it affects the sensibilities we have about family life and makes us reflect what it is to be a foreigner in a country where family life is so cherished. It leaves us thinking not about any of the celebrants but about what is going to happen to him, how will he celebrate the New Year! There is a great final shot of the white balloon in the air, just drifting. This tops off a very fine human-interest story, that might surprise a lot of people that it was made in modern Iran.

The White Balloonis a masterpiece in the way its tale of the human condition is so easily related without demeaning the people involved. It points out how a child is forced to grow up when faced with adversity. If I had to compare this to any film that I have seen, I immediately think of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thiefand see some of the same values about life in both films.

The White Balloon Poster