Michael Toscano

The Call of the Nightingale

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

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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.

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