Published January 1, 1999
Children of Heaven by the Iranian director, Majid Majidi is a little gem of the film of the sort which the Iranians seem to be good at, though it is a very little gem. When nine year old Ali Mandegar (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) takes the only pair of shoes belonging to his younger sister, Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi), to be repaired, he manages to lose them, and the two of them are left to share a single pair of shoes, Ali’s sneakers. The family is so poor that Ali is afraid of being beaten if he tells his father that he has lost the shoes. Zahra goes to school earlier in the day and is done just as Ali is starting, so they run a sort of shoe-relay as Zahra runs home from her (girls’) school as fast as she can so as to give Ali the battered sneakers he needs to run to his (boys’) school. At first he is late and has to make up some lame excuses, but after he is caught the third time, his sympathetic teacher, Mr Jafari, has a word with the principal and he is let off without the punishment already decreed.
It is easy for the viewer to enter in to Ali’s feelings of tension in keeping up the deception, and Zahra’s sometimes wavering sense of loyalty to him, but there are also moments of relaxation, or of different sorts of tension. At one point Ali and his father ride on the father’s bicycle through a wealthy neighborhood, asking those who live there if they need any gardening done. No one does, and they are going away discouraged when Ali begins to communicate by intercom with a younger boy, staying with his grandfather, who is lonely. The grandfather then has them in, the father to do his gardening, especially spraying his cherry and apricot trees, and the son to play with his grandson. Offered money, Ali’s father says (politely), “Money is not important,” but gramps gives it to him (also politely) anyway.
The amount is so great that the father is jubilant, and on the way home he says “I’ll buy everything.” Ali just wants him to buy some shoes for his sister. Hers are torn, he goes so far as to tell his father. Father, whom we gather is not altogether reliable, says he will get them both new shoes, and Ali is not much encouraged by this news. Shortly thereafter, the bicycle’s brakes fail as they are coming down a hill, and his father smashes it and them into a tree. Soon Ali and Zahra are back to their old routine. Zahra’s teacher gives an ironic lecture on how the girls must learn “to organize your time,” little imagining how one of them, at least, has had to organize her time to the second so as to prevent mom from knowing her brother has lost her shoes.
One day Zahra sees her shoes on the feet of another girl, Roya. We know that when Ali mislaid them they were picked up by a second hand dealer in the street, but to her this is a complete mystery. She follows the other girl home and finds that her father is blind and her family, presumably, even poorer than Zahra’s. So instead of saying anything about the shoes, she befriends the girl. Later Roya comes to school with a new pair of shoes. She proudly says her father bought them for her. “What did you do with the old ones?” asks Zahra timidly.
“Oh, we threw them away,” she answers airily. “They were torn.”
At school, Ali sees an announcement that there is to be a race in which third prize is, among other things, a pair of sneakers. He begs the coach at his school to allow him to enter, even though the deadline is past. “Please, sir,” the boy cries. “I promise to win!” This boy cries well, his little chin dimpling up and his eyes overflowing. Who could deny him? He also promises his sister to finish third and give her the sneakers, or trade them for girls’ shoes. And the combination of his determination and the training he has done running to school every day makes him a formidable competitor in the four kilometer race. But so focused is he on the need to get those shoes that he is in danger of spoiling everything by his overwhelming desire to finish not first or second but third.
This is what many will think a watching-paint-dry movie, but its simplicity and visual cleanness, and the talent of its young actors, all help us to feel the little triumphs and tragedies of children that take place on the margins of scarcely-understood, almost irrelevant adulthood with unusual poignancy.