Michael Toscano

The Call of the Nightingale

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

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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.

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