The Color of Paradise

Review by Adam Blair

Written and Directed by Majid Majidi
With Mohsen Ramezani, Hossein Mahjub, Salime Feize

90 minutes; in Farsi, with subtitles (1999)

All the other students at the school for the blind have been picked up by their families for the summer vacation. Mohammad, a boy of about eight years old, sits on a bench waiting for his father, hour after hour. In the quiet now that the other children have gone, Mohammad hears the plaintive cry of a baby bird. He begins crawling around the school grounds, searching through damp leaves and pinecones for the creature. He finds the injured baby bird, climbs a tree and places him back in the nest where his mother waits.

If this sounds a bit too precious for words, it doesn't play that way - at least at the beginning - in The Color of Paradise, an Iranian film written and directed by Majid Majidi. This sequence and a few others throughout the film have a piercing, unsentimental clarity. As Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani) climbs the tree, for instance, a few well-edited shots show how difficult a feat that is when you can't see the branches above or whether there's a foothold below. I used to love to climb trees when I was a kid, and this wordless few minutes brought home to me how something so simple becomes a gigantic challenge to a blind person.

It also efficiently demonstrates Mohammad's perseverance and strength, qualities that he needs in the course of the film. His sad-eyed father Hashem (Hosein Mahjub) does eventually come to pick him up, but immediately asks if the school can keep him over the summer. When they refuse, he grudgingly takes Mohammad back to the country.

Hashem's Dickensian cruelty becomes a bit clearer when we see how anxious he is to remarry (he's a poor widower). He's afraid a blind son will ruin his chances to marry a pretty young woman from a strict religious family.

Balancing Hashem's selfishness are Mohammad's sisters and his grandmother (Salime Feizi), a wise, loving presence who adores her grandson. She accepts his blindness as part of the order of things, unlike the father, who sees it (and the rest of his life) as near-intolerable burdens, to be shifted or cast aside if possible.

The film, which takes place in the mountainous region of northern Iran, employs the area's stunning visuals to good effect. If, like me, you thought Iran was all desert, Paradise shows just how varied, and beautiful, the country can be. Low-flying clouds pass through the steep, tree-covered mountains. Fields of wheat and wildflowers stretch into the distance.

The problem is that the scenery, and the symbolism (that baby bird is only the first of several small animals that has been cast out and cast aside) sometimes overwhelms the human aspects of the story. Once the basic conflict is established, between the father's spiritual blindness and the higher vision of the son, it's not really developed much further, and the plot seems to meander. The highly dramatic, almost action-movie climax of the film comes as such a shock that it feels tacked on.

Paradise is strongest when it focuses on the everyday details of rural life. If you've ever wondered how to collect flower petals and cook them into a soup-like dye to color wool, you'll get a quick visual lesson in this movie. The acting is also excellent, especially Ramezani as the blind boy. He conveys the innocence and curiosity required by the role without becoming overly sticky-sweet. Feizi's grandmother also balances sweetness with the toughness that's obviously been required to survive as long as she has.

(This article originally appeared in Films in Review, www.filmsinreview.com)

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