Michael Toscano

The Call of the Nightingale

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

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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.

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