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Michael Toscano

The Call of the Nightingale

Majid Majidi’s films are love-songs to God.

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?"

"My Granny's."

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."

The carpenter sits quietly, then stirs: "Your teacher is right."

Just then, echoing through the valley, over the water, from somewhere high up in the evergreen mountain range behind—none of which Mohammad sees but somehow, you suspect, he feels—comes the rattle of a woodpecker. A nightingale sings a serene song, a soft and high lullaby that glides low to rise again gently. A wind blows ominously. Mohammad's ear grabs hold of the sounds, the woodpecker, the nightingale, and the wind, searching each for a trace of God's voice. Thunder rolls.

Mohammad embraces the nightingale's song, its high-pitched staccato and its mellifluous downward slide; he explores it, cherishes it, and attends to it. He opens his heart to it, knowing that it emanates from the heart of God. In and through the song, their hearts meet; the blind boy struggling for light touches Light itself.

But without blindness—if God had never given it to Mohammad—he would never have listened so closely (there is a scene in which he deciphers a code in the sound of a woodpecker's drumming), nor would he have felt with his hands so intensely (in another scene, he reads an ear of wheat like a text in braille, sensing words and letters in the bristling ears). For Majidi, this cursed limitation, though terrible, is a gift, a medium of grace, provided one accepts it and uses it to pray. In Mohammad's blindness, God waits.

Majid Majidi is a deeply religious man, a pious Shia Muslim in good standing with the Iranian regime. His films are attentive to the moral obligations of modesty, careful in their choice of imagery, and made quite evidently out of love for God. In 2015, Majidi released Muhammad: The Messenger of God, part one of a projected trilogy depicting the life of the Prophet, intended to present Shia Islam with a peaceful face to global audiences. Muhammad is the costliest film in Iranian history, made for $40 million, and the regime put its weight fully behind it, providing its blessing and a portion of the money needed to produce it. And yet, despite the fame and the prestige of the director (truly well deserved), the trilogy appears to have stalled at part one. Muhammad opened at Montreal's World Film Festival (a smattering of reviews emerged from the showing; none terribly enthusiastic); was denounced by Saudi Arabia's top cleric as a "hostile act" and, thus, was banned from release in much of the Muslim world; and was barred from theaters in the United States and other Western markets for fear of it sparking terrorism. This is a shame.

But Majidi has already given us an enviable body of work: small films, in marked contrast to his latest project, intimate in setting and subject, limited in scale but getting at the heart of things. Always sure-footed, he is never in a rush. Desire and its distortions, faithfulness and bad faith, temptation, the subtle and hidden qualities of sanctity, kindness, neighborliness, the noble place of the senses in knowing and the moral life, the turmoil the senses can cause if unmastered, love of self, love of God, and the conflict between them: these are Majidi's concerns. Large questions, asked in a little way.

Born in 1959 under the rule of the Shah and into a middle-class family from Tehran, his interest in cinema and performance blossomed early. He joined amateur acting troops as a young teen and studied at Tehran's Institute of Dramatic Arts as a young man. The 1979 revolution, however, nearly destroyed Iranian cinema and thus, too, his ambitions. Political instability and the heavy control of the Ayatollah Khomeini effectively choked off film production; only 13 Iranian films were released between the years 1979 and 1983. Instead of destruction, though, these arid years essentially purified Iranian cinema of elements distasteful to the revolutionary regime. Aspiring directors learned to make peace with the censors and their imposed limitations, producing a highly original film sensibility that glances on the great "new wave" movements of Italy, France, and Japan while embracing Iran's own rich (and very long) religious and spiritual history. Majidi, who spent the 1980s making film shorts, mastered his craft during this period.

Iranian cinema emerged in the 1990s, set free by the 1989 death of Khomeini. When its directors graced the international cinema stages soon thereafter, critics were amazed by their deeply poetic, visually rich, morally serious, and intensely introspective filmmaking. In the years since, the so-called Second Wave of Iranian cinema—the first being a small movement of the late 1960s—has established itself as one of the great chapters in cinema history.

Majidi first achieved international acclaim with Children of Heaven (1997), a beautiful movie about two children, brother and sister, so poor that they must share a pair of shoes. Children of Heaven was nominated for Best Foreign Film by the Academy. It lost. But it won Montreal's Grand Prix des Amériques, as have two of Majidi's other films, including The Color of Paradise.

There is nothing strikingly innovative about Majidi's filmmaking but much that is elegant. His eye is naturally drawn to vibrant colors and lingers over the scenic and picturesque, of which the Iranian landscape has a ready supply and great variety: he might linger on a hill dappled with yellow, red, and lavender flowers, woven thickly among long, swaying blades of grass, or on platters of food arrayed for a family meal. His heart is rural. Tehran, the City, represents decadence, materialism, and hyper-sensation: sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells too numerous and fast-approaching to grasp, so one is instead grasped by them. The initial awe and heightened awareness piqued by the mighty metropolis morph into a muddied blur of faded moments. For Majidi, Tehran is dirty brown and sooty black.

But the brown and black is always waiting to be relieved by a shot of color and a bit of beauty: a feminine hand of caramel brown pouring black tea, disclosed by a breeze that has brushed aside a white and lacy curtain.

His camera is quiet, never askew, and generally satisfied with the "rule of thirds" (a basic canon of photographic composition, which centers the eye on a zone that tends to please it). His shots are long in duration, not overly so, but long enough—unlike the shots in most American films—to present more than one action before a cut. His camera will move—pan, track, and zoom—but softly and poetically. Majidi works patiently, with a quite self-assurance that turns even the most basic zoom into something at once surprising and articulate. He is even thriftier with his slow motion, a reserve that offers the same reward: why does a slow-motion shot of Granny tossing seed to chickens move one so?

This may sound like boring filmmaking, but I offer the praise enthusiastically. Majidi is pleased by the fundamentals of film and the basic powers of the camera, so much so that he will enact them again and again and again. I admire an artist who peers through a lens and, with something approaching joy, or maybe just contentedness, uses it to do what it was made to do: to see. Majidi sees. I wish more directors would or could. Alas, while many are very talented, most (though fortunately not all) are content to be ingenious technicians, product managers with an artistic flair, or (and this is true of the very best of them) sharp wits with "amazing dialogue" who tell "great stories." Their films are like Majidi's Tehran, full of dazzle but lacking depth, firmness, perspective, and reality. Majidi sees.

But he also averts his eyes. "Ever since I've practiced not seeing, I've seen many wonderful things." The line belongs to Morteza, a relatively minor character in Majidi's The Willow Tree (2005), who, despite his limited time onscreen, is voicing the moral of the story. Though technically not a sequel to The Color of Paradise, the two films complement each other in an interesting way. We might summarize it this way: if The Color of Paradise is about spiritual seeing, The Willow Tree is about spiritual blindness.

Both films focus on the life of a blind person. In both, the affliction stirs deep longing, giving rise to searching prayer and Job-like agony. Both protagonists fiercely interrogate the witness of the world and of God, in pursuit of the mystery of their own meaning. Mohammad does so through his hands, ears, and heart; daddy Yousef, the main character of The Willow Tree, does so through his study of Sufism, a mystical and poetic form of Islam.

At the crossroads of the heart, the two characters part. Mohammad molds his agonizing blindness into a vessel filled with prayer, returning it to God as an offering of love. For Yousef, despite his prayers, his severe sensory limitations open his heart, quite subtly, to a creeping and corrupting envy, a quiet and imperceptible hate of his own life and of God—all of which will soon be revealed.

A miracle: Yousef, after decades of blindness, outwardly pious, well into his fifties, successful, a husband and father, a respected scholar, will be given sight. And this will be his undoing. Offscreen, just before the film begins, doctors spot a potentially cancerous mass of tissue beneath his right eye. Yousef naturally fears the worst. "I'm Yousef," he tells God, "The one You deprived of the beauties of the world and who never complained." His blind eyes, which have cost him so much already, seem poised to take more, perhaps everything. And Yousef blames God, their maker, for their rebelliousness (or, more accurately, their obedience): "To whom should I complain about what you are doing to me?"

It is not meant to be. When he flies to France for a fuller diagnosis and surgery, the mass is discovered to be benign. Then, the miracle: the ophthalmologists say they can repair his long-damaged sight: "More than anyone else, I long for the light."

The doctors sterilize their hands and line up their blades. "Scared of not seeing?" "Maybe scared of seeing. I've lived in another world for 38 years."

After the surgery, Yousef tears off his bandages. The light.

He skips and dances down the hospital corridor in the late hours of the night. The residents, doctors, nurses, and wards fast asleep, he sings and laughs and leaps like a gleeful child. He watches closely as an ant crawls slowly across the windowsill, the first living creature he has seen since he was a boy. Beautiful. He catches his breath: his own reflection. Yousef. I am me. I am. I am.

We will not hear another prayer from Yousef for quite some time. What begins as joy and light soon overwhelms him. He is undone by the lust of the eyes—not just seeing what is morally illicit but seeing more than he can bear, a gluttony of the senses. Without long practice at repelling the allure or moderating the pleasures of visual perception, his eyes become tied to what is before them. He can no longer lift them in praise or close them to peer inward in prayer. Bedazzled, he desires sight itself more than he desires God:

I have a heart that sings for beauty, and I wanted it, to see and make love to it, to become one with it, and it said, "I am not God." And I replied, "Are you sure?"

Yousef becomes restless, dissatisfied, numb, and bored. Roya, his wife, appears to him plain; and he gives his heart to a younger woman with a clearly apparent beauty. "I want to live my own life. Yes, I want to live my way! I want to live my way! I want to live my way!" He is self-captivated.

"Ever since I've practiced not seeing, I've seen many wonderful things," to return to the moral of the story. When Yousef was in Paris, he met the wise and charismatic Morteza (played by the wonderful character actor Mohammad Amir Naji, a staple of Majidi's films). While Yousef hoped to regain his sight, Morteza was in the hospital because he was heading quickly toward complete blindness. Morteza, that is, was learning to see.

Near the film's climax, Yousef tears his belongings from the wall and builds a fire in his backyard. He tosses in his academic writings, family photos, and personal letters. The scene is classic Majidi: despite the seething drama, it is poetic, almost dreamy. Ashes rise in slow-motion from the flames and swirl into the night air: black specks dancing across a grey sky. Majidi fades to a close-up of burnt pages and melting family photos. That's when Yousef finds an envelope addressed to him from Morteza. He tears it open:

"Greetings, Mr. Yousef! I really miss you. I wanted so much to see you again. Tell me what's worth seeing and I'll tell you what's not worth seeing. Ever since I've practiced not seeing, I've seen many wonderful things. Guess what? I found a forest full of walnut trees. I'd like to take you there sometime. We'd eat our fill of walnuts. How much have you been seeing? Are your eyes satisfied?"

Then, blackness. Quite suddenly, Yousef's repaired eyes fail and he falls once again into a deep and terrifying darkness. But there is hope for Yousef. Blind again, this time for good, perhaps he will begin to see. At the film's end, he prays.

"Ever since I've practiced not seeing, I've seen many wonderful things." This is a remarkable paradox for a film director to meditate upon. Here Majidi is drawing on Sufism—and he makes no secret of its influence. His films sprout from the lush poetic gardens of Rumi, Attar, and Hafez, as much as they burn with the hot coals of the Koran. Sufism, like many classical mysticisms, measures carefully the desires of the heart, ever prone—vexingly prone—to love finite things over infinite things, the goods of the body and the senses over the goods of the soul, oneself over one's neighbor, and one's life on Earth over one's life in God. These are constant temptations. The state of being prone to them, an after-effect of the Fall, the Christian tradition calls "concupiscence," a concept which Sufism shares.

While it suffuses the whole of Majidi's catalogue, the influence of Sufi poetry is easiest to spot in The Willow Tree, in which Yousef is a scholar of Rumi and Hafez. But it's also felt in The Color of Paradise. In Sufi poetry, the nightingale is the allegorical image of the lover whose heart sings rapturously for the beloved, whether the beloved be things low, high, or Highest. The nightingale who sings for God is the nightingale in its truest form. In Attar's The Conference of the Birds, the nightingale sings,

The secrets of all love are known to me …
Throughout the darkest night my song
Resounds, and to my retinue belong
The sweet notes of the melancholy lute
The plaintive wail of the love-sick flute;
When love speaks in the soul my voice replies
In accent plangent as the ocean sighs.

In The Color of Paradise, the accent of the nightingale is indeed plangent, and it sings and sighs most when Mohammad uses his ears and fingertips to search the world for God.

Mohammad sits alone, listening and waiting for his father who is doing business in a shop in Tehran; Majidi zooms slowly in on the boy's face; he smiles; the sounds of Tehran fade to a whisper; a nightingale coos gently. Mohammad rests upon a large rock in a wood; his father, a hundred or so feet away, rakes burning coals from the yawning door of a furnace; a woodpecker drums; Mohammad reads the rattling peck; a nightingale sings a beautiful floating tune. Mohammad weeps before the blind carpenter: "You know nobody loves me … . Now I reach out everywhere for God … and tell Him everything." Granny, who does loves Mohammad (against his doubts), leaves home in the hard, cold rain, unwilling to stay under the roof of her son because he has abandoned the boy; she grows ill and dies. Mohammad, living with the carpenter, wakes from his sleep; something has happened. He peers out of his window and into the night; Granny's spirit passes from the world; the nightingale sings her a lovely song. Mohammad's father, ashamed, retrieves him from the carpenter's home; as they journey homeward, an accident: crack!; the horse which bears Mohammad breaks the footbridge on which they walk; Mohammad is thrown into the river and swept away; his father, in a moment of true love, dives into the foam to rescue him, but too late; the two wash ashore on the Caspian Sea; Mohammad lies motionless as his father embraces and weeps over him (after years of cold, warmth), he finally knows the worth of the boy; seagulls caw overhead; waves break gently; the nightingale sings its tune; it sings it again; close-up on Mohammad's hand; a beam of golden Light as if from heaven strikes it—or does it radiate with a fire within?—Mohammad's fingers move. He is the lover, and he has finally touched the One he loves.

Ever since I've practiced not seeing, I've seen many wonderful things." Majidi is strikingly aware of what a director does, or at least is supposed to do: to see; and he comprehends the moral peril of an artist who sets out to achieve such a goal. He lives in a culture which in so many ways practices not seeing. This is the essence of the veil, a subject which he treats quite beautifully in Baran (2001). I won't spoil the film for you—see it (and forgive me if I here pass on addressing the moral questions related to the headscarf). For Majidi, practicing not seeing is a cultivation of modesty and satisfaction. Why show a woman in orgasm when an elegant wrist (and perhaps a little innuendo) will do? Or why use five shots when two, or even one, will do?

If a director is to restrain himself on film, though, he must restrain himself in life—that is, he must "practice" restraint. He must fast. A man who refuses meat on Friday (and a man who refuses his smartphone on Sunday) is better suited to be a director (all things being equal) than a man who doesn't. Because the man who fasts is the man who can best grasp the measure of a thing, because he recognizes its power over him and knows its limitation in bringing him happiness. From that vantage point, he can see; thus, he knows what kind of a shot a thing deserves, if any at all. Such a man is free to look long, and he is free to look away, because such a man is free.

Majidi's films are wary of the lust of the eye and deeply respectful of the powers of sensory perception. But that power, when wielded by a free man, is truly seeing and truly hearing, the noble state of truly knowing. When such an eye, peering outward from an orderly, "practiced" heart, beholds an object and is fascinated, it lingers not out of lust, but out of appreciation, admiration, and love; because the object when truly seen reveals itself as worthy of sight. Don't look away: to do so would be a moral failure. This mode of seeing is the mode of poetry and the mode of the patient camera. It is the mode of beauty, the mode of love, and the mode of Majidi's films.

The director is the nightingale; he is the lover, who, looking through the lens, becomes either Mohammad or Yousef. He can in love strive to behold the object of his attention in its integrity and beauty, and even with the eyes of faith glimpse in it the act of love (God's love) which is sustaining it in being; or he can love himself and turn the object to his own devices and to the pleasure of his own senses, an act which effectively obscures the object's true nature—and deadens the senses. Such a creature, like Yousef, is heading toward ruin: lust, envy, greed, sensuality, and (especially) boredom, the vice which saps life of all of its energy and flavor. This is the world as seen in all too many films, which contain long stretches of digital "images" without any trace of a single tangible object.

What of Mohammad, the nightingale, and the director who in love sees?

And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: "It is not I." … I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded, "We are not your God, look beyond us." … I asked the heaven, sun, moon, and stars; they said: "Nor are we the God whom you seek." And I said to all these things: "Tell me something about him." And in a great voice they cried out: "He made us." My question was the attention I gave to them, and their response was their beauty.

This majestic (and famous) passage comes not from the epic verses of Sufism but from St. Augustine's Confessions, from my own tradition, Christianity. For all that separates Majidi and Augustine, here they converge. I can think of no passage that better encapsulates the incredible power of the virtuous eye, which can perceive the beauty of the created world and therein—in the textured braille of nature—the writing of God's hand and nature's joyful reply. This is the dignity of the eye (when rightly ordered), the dignity of the camera (when used to see in love), and the dignity of Mohammad, searching the fibers and composition of sound and touch for the One who composed them. You are both seen and unseen; only thee I want; only thy name I call. "Now I reach everywhere for God till the day my hands touch him."

A good director sees; a poor director doesn't; a great director sees deeply. Majid Majidi is a great director—and we see with him. We see modesty, beauty, the veil, and a true lover who lays down his life for his beloved (Baran); brother sacrificing for sister and sister for brother, and God's pleasure in a swift boy who runs with courage in his heart (The Children of Heaven); the young and the spiritual, the old and the sensual, and a farseeing gang of kids with a great idea for a business (The Song of Sparrows). True blindness, we learn, is an ungoverned eye; true sight is a practiced blindness, and we see the fate of a man who throws his life—wife, child, mother, career, and home—into the flames of a seething, resentful bitterness and unrestrained appetite (The Willow Tree); true seeing is an act of heart, and God's curse is an act of grace (The Color of Paradise).

These are Majidi's little films, pictures made in the mode of beauty. We know these things in our hearts, but we forget. When we see them, though, when we really see them, we remember. That's what great film does: helps one to see and to remember, to recover what was lost. When I saw The Color of Paradise, I remembered seeing itself, which somewhere along the way had gone missing. When I remembered seeing, I remembered the world, because I saw it. And that made me want to see less film and more world. And it said, "I am not God."

Michael Toscano writes from Brooklyn.

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