Michael Toscano

The Call of the Nightingale

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

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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.

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