The Call of the Nightingale
Iranian director Majid Majidi's Rang-e Khoda (1999)—literally "Color of God," but released in English-speaking markets with the title The Color of Paradise—begins without color, two minutes and 21 seconds of a black screen accompanied by the voices of boys, a man, and the familiar clickety-clack of a tape cassette:
Click! Song stopped. Man's voice speaking Farsi asks: "Is this it?"
A boy answers: "No, sir."
Man: "Whose is this?"
Second boy: "Mine, sir."
Man: "Come and get it."
Screen still black: Clack (a tape slid into the deck),
click, a song whirs to life.
Man asks over the song: "Whose is this?"
Third boy: "Mine."
Clack! Song stopped. Man: "Come and get it."
Then, the sequence repeats: clack; click; song; man; boy; clack; "Come and get it." And repeats again: "Come and get it."—and several times more. Then, a change: clack; click; song … "This is my tape, sir," a boy volunteers.
And with that, light and color: a medium shot peering down onto a table piled with cassettes, flanked by the tape deck that whirred and clacked just moments before. The man's hand reaches across the table and presses stop; then he asks, "Whose voice is this, Mohammad?"
The man places the tape in the small hand of Mohammad, who is reaching for it awkwardly, as if he doesn't quite see it—which he doesn't. He is blind. The camera shows us Mohammad, a handsome boy, with eyes rolled askew in their unnatural/natural resting place. He listens closely; his fingers search intently.
And just like that, by isolating the audio, persisting patiently in blackness, then dawning suddenly into light, Majidi orchestrates in his audience a heightened awareness of their own senses, and of Mohammad's, an effect he will elaborate upon throughout the film. Simultaneously, by going from black quickly to the face of a blind boy, Majidi gives his audience momentary entrance into Mohammad's blindness. Just minutes into the film, we are keenly aware of our own hearing and seeing, and of Mohammad's lack of seeing, coupled with his heightened reliance on his ears and fingertips.
It is a master stroke. The first time I saw The Color of Paradise, I focused so keenly on the movements of Mohammad's fingers, imagining the feeling as he moved his hands gently and intelligently across the roughened sand, that I experienced—well, there's only one word for it—synesthesia.
But Majidi's purpose is higher and deeper. The Color of Paradise is a fundamentally religious film, prayer-like, an offering to God, with a title screen that opens, as do all of his films, with the Basmala, the first verse of the Koran, "In the name of God." You'll miss it the first time through, but Majidi places the moral of the story right there at the start, when the tape deck first comes to life and a voice worshipfully croons:
You are both seen and unseen
Only Thee I want …
Only Thy name I call.
This simple lyric is the key to understanding little Mohammad, who puts his whole heart into "seeing" with his ears and fingers. He is not just investigating the coarse contours of leaves and wood—and when he cranes his neck and bends attentively to the call of the nightingale, he is listening for more than the honeyed songs of a bird. He is searching in them—through them—for a trace of the hand that made them: for God. Only Thee I want; only Thy name I call.
In The Color of Paradise, Mohammad's blind touch has a dual meaning. His dark grasp is a way of truly "seeing" and truly knowing with his fingertips, and also an empty clutch for the object of his desire. The hand blindly reaching is an image of the thirsty soul in search of the invisible God, at once present in absolutely everything and yet nowhere to be found. You are both seen and unseen. Mohammad, the poor, blind boy rummaging about, unable to find the thing he desires most, for Majidi, is an image of every man, including himself.
Toward the end of the film, Mohammad—who has been abandoned by his father, a selfish man unwilling to care for his burdensome son—lets a tear fall onto the hand of a blind but skilled carpenter who has agreed to mentor him. Mohammad chokes: "You know nobody loves me. Not even Granny. They all run away from me because I'm blind." Then, Mohammad pours out his heart:
"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."