My wife and I recently watched the Iranian film Children of Heaven by director Majid Majidi. The film debuted in 1997 to rave reviews and won a number of awards, as well as gaining widespread critical and viewer praise. It is indeed beautiful, or at least poignant, in some ways. The director captures a range of emotions, especially from the brother and sister protagonists in a uniquely honest, and penetrating way. There is a kind of childlike simplicity to the film that, as Roger Ebert noted, is a bit of a breath of fresh air after the almost constant barrage of cynicism and smart-mouth snarkiness of so many modern American films aimed at children. Children of Heaven isn’t exactly a children’s film but, like some of Roberto Benignin’s works, it has a childlike character to it, and would probably be enjoyed by many children.
The film’s story revolves around a poor young Iranian boy living with his family in the poorer part of Tehran who, after picking up his sister’s shoes from the tailor, loses them, innocently enough on his way home. Fearing their parents’ wrath, the two children conspire to share the boy’s shoes until they can come up with a plan. This leads to many problems from shame on the part of his sister at having to wear too big boys’ sneakers, to the brother (Ali) being routinely late to school since his sister’s classes end just minutes before his begin. Finally a plan is hatched for the brother to enter and, not win, but get third place in a city-wide foot race for boys his age, the third place prize for which includes a new pair of sneakers. I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that things don’t work out quite as planned. Nevertheless we are tipped off, through a fleeting shot of the father’s bike cargo, that through some extra money he has made doing gardening for the wealthy in Tehran he has bought both children a new pair of shoes. Nevertheless, the film ends with the boy dejected and crestfallen (not knowing of his father’s purchase) at his inability to do for his sister what he had promised.
There is much more that could be said, and there are a few high points in the film (like when a shopkeeper takes pity on the sister who has dropped one of the remaining pair of shoes into a gutter and helps her retrieve it), but in the end I was quite unimpressed with the film.
However, I do think it illustrates some important points about the fundamental differences between Christian, or even vestigial post-Christian cultures, and pre-Christian cultures. Obviously, being shot in Tehran, the film is set in an Islamic, and non-Christian context.
What stood out to me and my wife both, more than anything, is that the central conflict, the anxiety that riddles the film and creates all the (palpable) tension, was premised upon a fundamental inability of the children to communicate with the adults in their lives. And the fault was not with the children. For the first 10-15 minutes of the film (after the opening sequence), the viewer is subjected to multiple scenes in which it seems that every adult is yelling at either another adult or, more often, one of the children. But that’s just the beginning.
Think about it. A 9 year old boy loses a pair of shoes. Even granting severe poverty, this should not be a cause for the kind of existential angst that the children endure for the next 90+ minutes. But it is. There is no ability to simply explain to his parents what has happened. (What did happen, for context, is that he set the shoes, which were in a plastic bag, down in a sort of cubbyhole between a few crates of a street vendor’s vegetables while he stepped inside the shop to pick up some potatoes for his mother. While he was selecting the best ones he could find, a street person walked by and, after gaining permission from the vendor to pick up the empty bags, did so, accidentally picking up along with them the bag containing the shoes. An innocent happenstance by any reckoning.) Yet this scenario led to a situation in which the children felt doomed, unable to tell their parents for fear of beating, and being shamed, and unable to speak to any other adult in their lives.
But the problem is simply compounded from there as the children try their best to deal with the problem on their own. Yet everywhere they turn they find hostility, impatience, and a kind of subtle brutality from the adults in their lives. Ali is struggling to get to school on time after making the shoe switch with his sister. But it’s as if explaining the situation to the principal is unthinkable. He is simply berated. (One of the few adults in the movie that does come off as decent is his teacher, who rescues him from being sent home at one point, but even then, it seems that he does so because Ali is one of his best students, and not because of the fundamental injustice of not hearing the young man out, who is clearly at his wit’s end, stifling tears, and trying to hold himself together.)
I could go on at length with examples, but the point is that while the film takes up the children’s perspective, and show the children’s innocence, it doesn’t exactly make the adults, who treat the children with utter contempt, appear particularly bad. It’s as if that’s just the way life is. One can’t help but feel that Ali and his sister will likely grow up to be the same kind of calloused and harsh people their parents are. It’s as if the director wants to celebrate the innocence of youth, while at the same time giving in to a kind of fatalism that says that innocence must be lost, and when it is, so must be kindness, compassion, care for others, and basic decency.
A couple more examples will help demonstrate. Their is one notable sequence in the film where the father becomes very jovial, kind, and even playful with his son. It is when he has made a large sum of money unexpectedly (with his son’s help) doing some gardening for a rich family up-town in Tehran. Yet this only illustrates the basic problem that throughout the film poverty and hardship are seen as legitimate, or at least unavoidable excuses for cruelty and harshness. In the ethos of the film it seems entirely natural that the father would go from being a cruel authoritarian to a jocular friend and father with just the addition of some cash.
Likewise, one of the most poignant scenes in the film occurs when Ali and his sister, having discovered that a girl who goes to school with the sister is now wearing the lost shoes follow her to her house. Clearly they have in mind to confront her or her family, or to somehow try to get her shoes back. But then, peaking around a corner they see that her father is a blind beggar. Immediately the two look at each other with knowing glances that communicate that they both realize that they cannot seek to get the shoes back. They may have been lost unfairly, but you cannot take back even what you need from a blind man and his daughter who had nothing to do with the initial loss (they had traded for the shoes with the street person who picked them up in the first place). As I said, this is a beautiful and poignant moment in the film, but what is striking about it is that it demonstrates a moral and ethical sensibility in the children that one simply cannot imagine being shared by the primary adults in the film. The children are the mature characters, conspiring against the bickering and hateful adults whose domination they live under.
Finally, the film’s end follows a pattern set which seems determined to mitigate any real sense of hope. The film is full of one vignette after another where hopes are raised and then dashed. Ali kindly picks up his sister’s shoes from the tailor and stops at the grocer for his mother, but alas, his sister’s shoes are stolen in the process. Ali’s father finally finds a way to make some good money for the family, but the scene ends with a brake failure that results in a bike crash and a simultaneous crushing of what had been the most joyous and hopeful moment in the film thus far. Ali proves to be a very fast runner and excellent athlete, sure to be able to get his sister the shoes she needs, yet things don’t work out.
[Spoiler alert: Don’t read beyond here if you don’t want to know how the film ends.]
It even seems that the director is so intent on continuing the motif of dashed hopes that he will suffer plot holes to retain this theme. For instance, Ali noted in the film that if he won third place he would have to exchange the shoes he won, as they would be boy’s shoes, and too big for his sister. Thus the idea of trading a valuable item won for what his sister needed is already introduced. Yet somehow we are to believe that the first place prize is not of equal or greater value and thus not something that can be traded for a pair of shoes for his sister? This simply made no sense to me. Yet it seemed necessary to continue the theme of dashed hopes, and almost victories.
But to get back to the actual ending, the film concludes in such an odd way. On the one hand we know that the father has purchased new shoes for both children, yet we are left with an image, beautiful as some find it (I actually found it a bit odd) of the dejection of a child who feels that he has failed to remedy a situation that he only felt responsible to remedy in the first place due to the failure of the adults in his life to truly care for him. I was at first shocked and baffled when the credits rolled, and then almost angry.
There are other points that could be made about the general setting that I believe represent a sort of pre-Christian reality– a world filled with death, whether it’s the dingy, unclean buildings, the gutter that runs through the center of every street, the wholesale sworn allegiance of small children to the great leader, etc. but that is an essay for another time. For now I will just note that there was a sense of despair, hopelessness, and even death that seemed to hang over the film. Poverty is indeed a dark thing, but history proves that the light of the gospel can and has created and sustained light and life even in the midst of poverty. The poverty of this film was not the poverty of those who had hope, but the poverty of the dejected, downtrodden, and those who live in darkness.
What struck me about this film is that, although it is about children, and is in some sense told from their perspective, it is set in a world that simply doesn’t value children. Throughout the film children are treated as a bother and an inconvenience, except when they are essentially functioning as labor, or, in the case of the race, as a source of glory for the adults around them. They are not listened to, or sympathized with (with a few counter-examples such as the shopkeeper mentioned above). Their childlike wonder and naivete is not appreciated, as it was so famously by Jesus. And ultimately the whole crux of the film was premised upon the children’s inability to communicate their needs, failures, hopes, desires, and even fears to those whose job it wasto care for them. I found the film poignant in a certain way, but also depressing and even maddening. My wife described her reaction thus: “You know that sick feeling in your stomach that you got when you were hearing about the wicked Stepmother in Grimm’s Fairy Tales? I had that feeling all the way through the film. It’s like the kids were living in the presence of the evil Stepmother all the time.” So often I couldn’t fathom the adults seeing a child in tears (even, for example, as Ali won the race) and not trying to figure out what was going on, what was wrong. Instead, the adults gloried in the win of one of theirs even as the winner himself was clearly distraught and in deep emotional pain.
Children of Heaven is valuable in that it gives us a very powerful picture of the experiences of children, unfortunately it gives us a picture of the lives of children in a culture that devalues and uses them, and in the end take a sort of fatalistic, que sera, sera attitude that implies that the innocence of children is good and beautiful but not something that can be a model for us. Jesus disagreed.
“…Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3 ESV