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BANNER

4 February 2016

Bacheha-ye Aseman (1997)

Directed by: Majid Majidi
Music: Keivan Jahanshahi
Starring: Mohammed Amir Naji, 
Amir Farrokh Hashemian, 
Bahare Sediqqi, Fereshte Sarabandi
From one of Iran’s well-known directors comes a whimsical fable rooted in the reality of having only one pair of shoes amongst two siblings. Bacheha-ye Aseman (Children of Heaven) is a children’s movie with a difference – the children here are really children, not adults in miniature. It is about the love between a brother and sister, which makes the former want to make up for losing his sister’s shoes; it’s about the latter not wanting to get her brother in trouble for doing so. The plans these two children make to prevent their parents from finding out that the precious shoes have been lost is complicated enough for a master strategist; when they then have to replace those shoes without those very same parents knowing, it’s a different kettle of fish. 
Young Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) is off collecting his sister's shoes from the cobbler and unleavened bread from the local baker; when he reaches the market, he leaves them unattended on the wooden cartons, while he stops to buy potatoes. A homeless man (Mohammed Hasan-Hosseinian) stops by to collect trash, and inadvertently picks up the plastic bag containing the shoes. When Ali returns with the bag of potatoes, he realises the shoes have vanished. Frantic, he begins looking for them all over; in his haste, he knocks over the piles of vegetables, and the furious grocer drives him away. 

When Ali returns home, it is to find his mother (Fereshte Sarabandi) embroiled in an altercation with their landlord, who's abusing her for wasting water. They are five months behind on the rent, he reminds her, when she snaps that dirty clothes need to be washed. They haven't been able to pay the grocer's tab either, and Ali is frightened to tell his mother that he's lost his sister's shoes. 
But he's forced to tell his sister, Zahra (Bahare Seddiqui), who is in tears when she realises her brother is not teasing. Ali begs her not to tell their mother. Zahra is inconsolable. Ali promises her that he will look for them again. Risking the grocer's wrath, he goes back to the shop to search for the missing shoes. Unfortunately, he is forced to return empty handed.

Back home, Ali's and Zahra's father (Mohammed Amir Naji) is cross with his wife for arguing with the landlord; it's his place as the man of the house to deal with such things. He's also upset that she washed the rugs in her condition; she's been asked to rest. Soon, his anger is directed at Ali - why didn't he help her?
While the parents discuss their worries, Ali and Zahra quietly sit down to do their homework, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible so as to not incur their father's wrath. Quietly, Zahra slips Ali a note - how's she going to school tomorrow without any shoes? Ali suggests that she use her slippers. Zahra is upset - her brother has some nerve! She's going to tell their dad. But their father will beat them both since he doesn't have the money to buy her new ones, cautions Ali. He suggests she wear his sneakers to school; when she returns in the afternoon, he will use them himself. Ali is sorry for his sister, however, and even gives her his brand new pencil as consolation. With no other option, Zahra agrees.
Poor Zahra. She is not too happy with her brother's ragged sneakers. 

Back home, Ali is waiting anxiously outside their house for his sister to return after school. Zahra runs all the way home only to have Ali snap at her for being late. They quickly swap footwear and it's Ali's turn to run  - to school. Unfortunately for Ali, he's late and the principal spots him running up the stairs to his classroom. That evening, he tells his sister that she has to come home earlier. Zahra is upset - she had come immediately after classes, and what's more, she'd run all the way! Besides, the sneakers are very dirty and she's ashamed to wear them! (So there!)

Ali is upset too - she hasn't told their mother, has she? Of course not, snaps Zahra. She said she wouldn't! Relieved, Ali has a solution for the dirty sneakers. 
Brother and sister are in perfect accord.

That night, their mother praises Zahra for having done all the housework, and their father promises to buy something for both of them once he gets a raise. 

Later, Zahra wakes up to find it's raining; afraid to go out herself, she wakes Ali up. The sneakers are getting wet in the rain; they have to bring it in. The next morning, Zahra wears them to go to school. She cannot help but rue her lost shoes, however. 
It is examination time, and Zahra is restless; the examination timings go on for longer than regular school hours. She quickly completes her paper and rushes home to an increasingly-anxious Ali. On the way, she has a mishap.
Which makes her even later than ever. Thanks to a kindly old man, however, all is not lost. But when Ali is angry at her lateness, Zahra's had enough - the shoes are too big, and they come off, and she's not going to wear them any more, and if Ali doesn't find her shoes, she's going to tell their father! 
Sadly, Zahra turns away, while Ali runs to school without even stopping to put on his socks before slipping his feet into the sneakers. Of course, he's late again, and this time, the principal warns him that this is the second instance, and if he's tardy once again, he will not be allowed into class. A breathless Ali makes his way into class; he's has had examinations too, and when the results are read out, he's pleased that he's come in the top three. 

On his way home, he runs into his sister. It is clear that she's still upset with him, but he gives her a peace offering - the gold pen that his teacher gave him for getting good marks in the examination. Zahra's tears change into a sunny smile. Ali is happy his little sister is happy.

The next day, during school assembly, Zahra sees something that gives her a shock.
It's her schoolmate, Roya (Nafise Jafar-Mohammadi). Zahra can't wait for school to get over; she follows Roya to her house. Unfortunately, this makes her late, and Ali, even later. And this time, the principal refuses to listen to any of Ali's excuses. He asks Ali to go home, and return with his father. Or mother. Ali is in tears - his father is at work; his mother, ill. Besides, he doesn't want to be thrown out of school.

Luckily, the unfortunate boy finds an ally - his class teacher (Dariush Mokhtari), who persuades the principal to give Ali another chance. Ali is a good student, he tells the principal, and the latter gives in. 
That evening, Zahra takes Ali to Roya's house to ask her to give back Zahra's shoes. But they soon realise that Roya's father is the garbage collector in the town. He's also blind. The two children return home silently. (Unfortunately for Zahra's good feelings, Roya's father soon buys her a new pair of shoes - a blue one, with yellow trim and red ribbons - because she has done well at school. And where are the pink shoes? Oh, her mother threw them away, says Roya. Poor little Zahra.)

Meanwhile, their father is looking for other ways to augment his income. A friend of his had succeeded in making money by doing some gardening, and perhaps he'll be as lucky. His friend has lent him some gardening equipment, so he and Ali make their way to Tehran to see if they can get some gardening jobs in the mansions of the rich.
They are turned away from many places, until Ali takes it upon himself to do the talking. His father is proud of him. Finally, at one mansion, they come across a little boy who persuades his grandfather to hire the father and son. While Ali plays with the little boy, the grandfather takes Ali's father around his garden and shows him what must be done. 

Ali's father is astonished at the wages the grandfather pays him in return for his work. He could  work in this neighbourhood in the afternoons, he tells Ali, instead of working overtime for a pittance. He dreams of a better life, of the necessities that he can now buy for his family; Ali quickly tells him to buy a pair of new shoes for Zahra. Her shoes are torn. His father agrees. In fact, he will buy a new pair for Ali as well, he says. 

Alas, for all their hopes and dreams! 
But there's hope on the horizon. When Ali reaches school the next day, it is to be greeted with news of a series of long-distance races for school children of all ages. Ali looks at his ragged sneakers and doesn't register. Besides, the prize - two weeks at sports camp, even if it comes with a sports suit and is quite free, doesn't quite appeal to him. But then, he catches sight of the third prize - a week at a holiday camp. And a pair of sneakers!

But. The trials are over. 
Touched by his earnestness (and his tears), and his seeming confidence, the teacher agrees to give Ali a trial. The results astonish him and he quickly registers the boy. Of course, he doesn't know that Ali doesn't want to really win the race.
Now, all Ali has to do, is to race hundreds of kids his age in a long-distance race, and make sure that two of his competitors pass him while he comes in third. Simple, isn't it? 

Many surprises are in store for both Ali and Zahra, however, before this lovely little tale winds to a close. 

If you’re looking for a serious plot, complex characterisation, etc., this film is not for you. Director Majid Majidi does not seem very interested in the politicisation of the narrative; indeed, the film could take place anywhere. It’s a simple tale with a universal theme that cuts across regional and cultural barriers.   
Bacheha-ye Aseman is a quiet little film, with little unexpected twists and turns that are both sweet and poignant, the film with its minimal plot works as much as it does because of the two kids (who appear to have acted only in this film). Both Amir and Bahare are endearing (and entertaining) as they take turns wearing the only pair of shoes they now possess. It helps that their contrivances to keep the loss of the sneakers from their parents, and Ali's plan to replace them are also childish, even if creative. Ali's reaction to losing the shoes, his affection for his sister even as he squabbles with her for making him late, his sense of loss when he sees other children surrounded by their supportive parents at the race, his intense focus on his goal - winning the third place, and the motivation for doing so, are all mirrored in the quicksilver emotions that flicker across Amir's expressive face.
Bahare is a poppet. She is both childish and motherly at the same time, uncomplainingly taking on her mother's chores as the latter is bidden to rest, not castigating her brother for losing her shoes even though she's upset at their loss, not getting her brother into trouble even though she's upset when he yells at her for being late... their affection for each other is palpable throughout the film, and that is one of the film's biggest pluses.

This is the film that introduced Mohammed Amir Naji to audiences, and he, a non-actor, does a fine job as the father of the two children. So do Fereshte Sarabandi, and a host of others - Roya's father, the kindly teacher, the principal, the grandfather... none of them have more than a couple of scenes, but they are very effective for all that.

So, is Bacheha-ye Aseman a great film? Despite being the first Iranian film to receive an Academy Award nomination - not really, no. But it is certainly a good film, as well as a feel-good one that is sentimental without dissolving into bathos, and is worth watching simply because of the lack of melodrama to ruin the narrative. There's a scene where the Roya's father is inside the shoe shop, buying a pair of shoes for his daughter. He cannot see the shoes the shopkeeper is holding out to him because he's blind. At the same time, we see Ali's and Zahra's father, standing outside the shop window, gazing at the shoes on display, unable to afford them. It is a matter-of-fact scene, juxtaposing two different situations, but not milked for its emotional effect.

Neither is the climax, or the anti-climax, if you will.

Interspersed with this drama-that's-not-quite-a-drama are vignettes of the family's life, and the quiet vein of affection that underlies their exchanges, however hard it is to survive, let alone live. ‘Slice-of-life’ cinema has become a sort of cliché, but this film certainly is a peek into the lives of two children (and their parents) whose affection for each other override the sense of loss over a prized possession.

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