Michael Toscano

The Call of the Nightingale

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

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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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