(Spoilers ahead)

Iranian cinema was first put on the map when the films of Abbas Kiarostami caught the attention of the west. The avant-garde style and the peculiar yet totally fresh concept of “plotlessness” impressed the critics, invariably, throughout the world. After Kiarostami had made way for Iranian filmmakers to venture into the international scenario, it was up to the new generation to develop a stronghold and reserve a unique place for the cinema of their country without mimicking their forerunner. Quite a few of them have made it big, all in their own styles.

Jafar Panahi’s eye for the social issues and status of women in Iran, Bahman Ghobadi’s penchant for the portrayal of the fate of the Kurds and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s authority on depiction of proletarian life still remain unchallenged. Majid Majidi, taking an altogether different path, too has made his mark on celluloid. His films remain detached from the society and hence radically different from his contemporaries. These films, nevertheless, make an equally deep impact on the viewers, but in a very different sense. The following passages attempt to examine few of the themes and motifs employed in four of his major works – The Father (1996), Children of Heaven (1997), Colour of Paradise (1999) and Baran (2001).

The most evident facet in Majid Majidi’s works is the firm bonding of the central character with his family, especially with his father. Though Mohammad’s relation with his father does not seem to be all rosy, Colour of Paradise is essentially about their eventual bonding. Memar acts as a surrogate father for the orphaned Lateef in Baran and supports him as a real father does. Needless to say, Pedar is all about the father-son relationship. Furthermore, his works also track the sacrifices his characters make for their beloved ones. Mehrollah goes to the city for earning money for his sisters and mother, Ali is determined to win his sister the shoes he promised even if it means wounding his feet and Lateef literally loses his identity to get money for Baran. The exception of Mohammad shows his inability to mend his family’s situation and tackle his own suffering, eventually relying on God to do the needful. However, his love for his family is unvanquished and unadulterated.

Running becomes an integral motif in Majidi’s films. The characters are frequently seen running for life and sometimes running away running away from it. These images are invariably captured by a pan shot, taking the audience along with the character and thereby placing them in the character’s shoes. Additionally, running also becomes the major part in the plot of Children of Heaven with Ali needing to come third in a marathon to win a pair of sneakers.

The protagonists in Majidi’s films are often seen connecting to the outside world and the nature in their moments of solitude and depression. Be it Lateef (Baran) feeding the pigeons, Mohammad (Colour of Paradise) caressing the birds of the nest or Ali (Children of Heaven) being “consoled” by the fishes of the pond (incidentally, the gold fish is a sign of good omen in Iran), the agonists are in a dire need to be heard and soothed. Again, the exception of Mehrollah (The Father), who has no emotional outlet into nature or to his friend, substantiates the closed and inaccessible nature of his mind.

Yet another motif in the four films is the image of a flowing stream of water. The stream, in various manifestations ranging from sleek to tumultuous, represents the flow of life and carries along with it the disappointments and lost opportunities of the characters’ lives. The central characters are shown making contacts with the stream flowing at various rates that reflect the emotional turbulence of the characters themselves.

Another noticeable aspect about the movies of Majidi is their poetic endings that carry with them a sense of resurrection – destruction of the old and beloved and the arrival of a new one. Mehrollah accepts a new father, Lateef notices the departure of one Baran (rain) and the onset of another, Mohammad is free from his paternal alienation and is able to feel God at the end of his fingers and Ali spoils his shoes as he gets a new pair. This kind of visual poetry overflows in Baran.

Of course, this list is non-exhaustive and Majidi’s films carry many more themes and symbols than specified here. For example, the images of Roti (Bread) and tea appear almost consistently. Though no explicit meaning can be assigned to this leitmotif, it does give a sense of realism and struggle for daily survival. Also, the close up of hands doing various activities that define the key idea of the film – hands trying to connect to loved ones, hands unsuccessful at the same and hands attempting to restore lost happiness – provide the right tone for the emphasis of the central ideas sans verbalization.

In a country whose political and artistic barriers are just opening up to the world, Majidi has carved a niche for himself and his films without offending the nation’s sentiments and ideologies or getting into controversies. More than anything, these recurring elements of visual composition and mellifluous poetry affirm Majidi’s position as a true cinematic auteur and have made him the most respected Iranian after Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf.

Bicycleran (1987) (aka The Cyclist)
Persian
Mohsen Makhmalbaf

“His name is Nasim (Breeze), but he resembles a typhoon. He rides bicycle blindfolded. This man has stopped a train in India with his eyes. In Pakistan, he’s lifted two bulls on a finger and this time he is gonna ride and live on a bicycle for 7 days round the clock.”

 

The cyclistThe objectives, outlooks and needs of different levels of a community, naturally, do not concur. One man’s grief is another man’s pleasure. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Bicycleran (1987) captures this difference in the context of an event as viewed from people from different sections of the society. Though a bit more dramatic than most films then from Iran, Bicycleran has enough raw power and truth value to be classified under the neo-realistic genre.

Nasim is a Afghani labourer whose wife is sick and is in need of immediate treatment. Times are hard and labourers cannot expect more than 50 Tomans per day for their work. But Nasim’s requirements are higher and he tries everything he can including a feigned suicide attempt to blackmail people into giving money. Finally, through a bookie, Nasim agrees to put up a show where he would be riding a bicycle for 7 continuous days. The show begins amidst a lot of objections and . with time pedestrians and vendors begin to gather around him. Nasim witnesses his own exploitation by various people from different strata of society – vendors making it their sales hub, middlemen betting and common people getting relief from his plight. In spite of a lot of physical, emotional and social obstacles Nasim manages to finish the 7 days. At the time of glory, Nasim is asked to dismount from the bicycle by the reporters. He is indifferent to all the commotion (possibly because of the physical and mental fatigue) and continues to ride in the circular path.

The film can be viewed as an allegory of the struggles of the working class, a society that exploits them and an upper class that views them as objects of amusements. The recurrent themes of roundness that occur through the images of wheels, cycles and structures signify the vicious circle of fate and inevitability that the working class treads in. The film won the best film at the Hawaii Film Festival in 1987.

Gabbeh (1996)
Persian
Mohsen Makhmalbaf

“Life is colour”
 

GabbehA co-production of the French and the Iranian film industry, Gabbeh (1996) is perhaps the best and most typical starting point for the westerners who would like to get an insight into the cinema of the east. Released in 1996 Gabbeh has managed to enchant the westerners and the Asians alike for not only its artistic merits but also for its subtle exposure of the culture of Iran. The film is centered around a nomadic tribe, which is tightly bound by blood relations. The tribe has its own rituals and beliefs which it passes on for posterity. One such practice is the weaving of carpets for a person depicting the journey of their life. The tribe carries and updates the carpets wherever they go.

The film begins with an old couple who are at the river side washing one such carpet. They envisage a young lady representative of the carpet and converse with her. The young lady has a story to tell- one that of forbidden love. She takes us through her life’s ordeals, her moments of joy, dissatisfaction and sorrow. Representing various emotions, colours play a very important role in the film. These colours blend with the carpet to tell stories of the people it has been with. So do the various landscapes that the tribe wanders through. The animals too, in the film are representative of the oneness of the clan and the alienation of the beloved of the young lady.

Running over just a hour and a quarter, the film is succinct and opts to show what it wants rather than talk. The film opened ways for subsequent Iranian films to reach out to the world and display their artistic and film making abilities. For its poetic direction and striking use of imagery, the film won the Best Artistic Contribution Award in the Tokyo International Film Festival.