Children of Heaven (1997)

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In Children of Heaven (1997), director Majid Majidi explores the world of children in Iran through a sweet little story of an ordinary family. With its moving plot development, realistic and plain camera movement, and an intuitive and down-to-earth performance by the two young actors (Amir Farrokh Hashemian as Ali, and Behare Seddiqi as Zahra), Children of Heaven takes on a neo-realist approach to reveal the truest image of lives of children in today’s Iran.

It is through the eyes of Ali and Zahra, that audience are able to witness the wealth disparity in the current Iran, the role of education in the society, and the director’s hope in the country’s young generation. On the way home from doing grocery for his sick mother, nine-year-old Ali loses his sister’s (Zahra) newly-repaired shoes, which are accidentally picked up by a blind trash collector. Unable to go to school without her shoes, Zahra solves the problem by wearing her brother’s sneakers to school, and runs home right after class so that Ali can put them on for his school in the afternoon.

This resolution, however, is not ideal since Zahra cannot run that fast to avoid Ali from being late from class. Yet, due to economic difficulty, this matter remains unsolved until one day when Ali decides to run for a marathon in which the second runner-up will be prized a brand new pair of sneakers – exactly what Ali thinks as the perfect gift to his beloved sister. Children of Heaven is packed with elements that characterize a neo-realist movie.

In its plot development, while the central story line is about how Ali and Zahra deal with the missing pair of shoes, subplots that are not causally related to the main plot, such as Ali’s father’s search for work in the city and Zahra’s friendship with the blind trash collector’s daughter, are as well important in the movie, as they vividly reveal the condition of the society being filmed, and the inner world of the characters. According to Film History: An Introduction, a neo-realism style is defined to have an “emphasis on contemporary subjects and the life of the working class. (P. 361. Thompson, Kristin, and Bordwell, David. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. 2002. McGraw Hill).

In Children of Heaven, the subplots mentioned above have combined powerfully to present the image of a typical family of the working class, through the dialogs (the numerous complaints Ali’s father makes towards their landlord), the living condition of Ali’s family, and the struggles they face (owing rents and continuous illness of the mother). On the other hand, formal structures also add weighs to the overall believability of the movie.

The plain and steady camera movement, the use of natural lighting, and the extend of which local footage is taken, all combine to create a convincing setting that introduces the audience a touch of reality in the current Iran. As the two main characters, Ali and Zahra, aged 8 and 9, represents the younger generation of the society, it is inevitable that the focus of the film would fall upon how children is perceived and how they are expected by the older generation – the parents, the film makers, and, most importantly, the audience.

Education plays a crucial role in the development of a child – and so is it placed in the movie. Throughout the movie, while the missing shoes appear to be the central of the story, it is the function of them that gives importance to its existence – Ali and Zahra need them in order to go to school. Not only does Zahra refuse to go to school with barefoot, she also refuses to wear slippers as a replacement. It is important for her to wear properly to school, as she respects and treasure what the school brings to her – education. Ali also treats going to school seriously.

A good student in class, his performance earns praises from teachers and respects from fellow classmates. However, since losing Zahra’s shoes and now has to wait until his turn to wear the sneakers, he is often late for class, and, hence, displeases the teachers. In the scene where one of the teachers eventually confronts Ali, his passion to go to school and to learn is fully demonstrated. This scene opens with Ali arriving to school as he realizes he is late again. Guilty and worried, he slowly walks along the hall way, trying to sneak into his classroom without being discovered by the teacher.

The camera moves steadily towards Ali, revealing his fear of being seen, and then cut to a POV from Ali’s perspective, putting audience into Ali’s shoes. As he walks up the stairs, however, he finds out that the teacher has already been waiting for him at the corner. Without letting Ali explain, the teacher asks Ali to leave the school. The amount of dialog between the teacher and the student remains minimal, and thus makes the teacher’s authority figure more powerful and Ali more pitiful.

It then cuts to a close-up on Ali’s face, his eyes filled with tears, yet he remains polite and extremely respecting to the teacher. In this sequence of shots, audience is able to see how important Ali sees his school – through his disappointment and tears when he is sent home. His respect to his teachers is also demonstrated in this sequence, as we see his quiet and obedient demeanor in response to his teacher’s accusation of being an irresponsible student, when he can simply justify himself by telling the truth.

By using children as the focus of the movie, it is easy to see the director’s intention to show his faith and hope for the youngsters. Ali and Zahra are not only good students, they are mature, helpful and understanding for their family as well. Helping out when their mother is sick, they not only do the housework for the family, but also compromise not to complain about the missing shoes as their parents are having a hard time making ends meet.

Ali, being the elder son, bears even more extra responsibility and, towards the end, almost takes on his father’s position in the family. Ali’s maturity and ability to share his father’s job is well demonstrated in the part where Ali and his father go uptown to look for clients of their gardening business. Opening with shots that show the upscale landscape and fancy buildings of the upscale community, Ali and his father ride on a bicycle through the road that is crowded by luxury cars. Amazement is in their faces, as the medium close-up reveals.

This scenery of a modern heaven of skyscrapers contrasts powerfully with the backward village audience has been viewing throughout the film. From an overhead shot where we see Ali and his father riding the bicycle along other exotic vehicles on the highway, audience are even able to feel the isolation of the two from the rest of the objects in the screen so strong that the two were as if a visitor from a different world – in fact, this may essentially be the case, since industrialization and modernization have divided Iran into two distinctly different classes.

Dissolving from this shot to one where Ali and his father appear in the city’s residential area, we see the two tries their luck as they ring on the bell to provide their gardening service. Their first attempt, however, almost fail, for Ali’s father, new to this job, is too shy to speak out his intention. This is when Ali would come to rescue, eloquently states their purpose of the job. Ali’s rise of importance in this scene not only demonstrates his maturity and courage, it also means that Ali has the ability to connect the social class he belongs to and the class everyone in Iran is striking for.

In the latter scene when they eventually are given the opportunity to work at one of the residence, Ali is seen to be taking care of a child from a rich family. In sum, Ali, equipped with maturity through his family’s struggles and education he received from school, can then be seen as the connection in the movie that links the upper and lower class of the disjointed society. Children of Heaven celebrates the hopes and faith director places on the future generation of Iran.

Experiencing the near expulsion from school, exposing to the economic struggles his family is facing, and seeing the disparity between the world he is living and the world that belongs to the rich, Ali can’t help but to grow to the age of realization – the realization of social hardship and the importance of education. As the movie ends with Ali being the first – instead of the third – to finish the marathon, we have probably as well see the message the film attempts to deliver – keep running, a third world country can eventually get into the first.

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