Rarely do movies touch my heart. At the best they produce emotions for a few moments but not of the variety that inspires and teaches in any lasting way. Such was not the case when I discovered the 1997 movie, Children of Heaven. I was not quite ready for the beauty and humaneness of such a children’s film. I guess I should know better by now. A children's movie can, and often does, tell a very adult story in a humble way. Roger Ebert says that this film is “a nearly perfect movie for children, and of course that means adults will like it too.” He is right on. Amazingly Children of Heaven accomplishes this with only two major characters, both Iranian children!
The writer and producer of Children of Heaven is Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi. Majidi began acting at the age of twelve. He enjoyed theater and later was afforded the opportunity to direct films. Children of Heaven prompts me to see more of his films as time allows. (I went to the Web, of course, to learn about other Majidi films. You will discover all you may desire to know about him in the same way.)
Children of Heaven is a beautiful story about Ali, an Iranian boy. This boy takes his sister’s shoes to be repaired and loses them on the way home when he stops in the market to buy vegetables. (A blind trash collector accidentally takes them, a point that comes out marvelously in a later scene.) Ali’s sister, Zhara, wants to know how she is supposed to go to school without her shoes. Ali begs her to not tell their parents and then promises to share his sneakers with her each day if she runs home in time to allow him to wear these same sneakers to school at a later time of day. The problem is that Zhara is often late and Ali, a good student and motivated boy, is in trouble with the principal.
There is a wonderful scene in the film where Ali and his father ride an old bicycle to the luxury homes where the rich live. The father has set out to find work as a gardener. When he arrives he is too shy to ring the buzzers at the security gates to ask for work. Ali comes to his rescue and the result is a great day for the whole family.
The movie ends with a marvelous foot race. Ali learns of this race and, through persistence with his teacher, gains the opportunity to qualify. When he finally runs the big race his goal is not to win but to finish third. Why? The third prize winner gets a new pair of shoes. Ali promises his sister he will win third place and give her the shoes. If I tell more at this point I will spoil the ending so. The story ends with a few visual twists that the viewer must carefully observe or you will easily miss the point.
Roger Ebert says that Children of Heaven “is about a home without unhappiness. About a brother and sister who love one another, instead of fighting. About a situation any child can identify with. In this film about Iran, I found a sweetness and innocence that shames the land of Mutant Turtles, Power Rangers and violent video games.” Ebert also said this film “lacks the cynicism and smart-mouthed attitudes of so much American entertainment for kids and glows with a kind of good-hearted purity.” Well said.
This film would have never been made in Hollywood. If it was it would cost several million dollars. It was filmed for an estimated $180,000 in Iran, subject to government censorship and involvement. The film includes subscripts, obviously. This is not a problem, even for children. Even non-reading children could watch it with older siblings or friends and listen to translation, which would prepare them to enjoy other foreign films as they grow older. To miss foreign films is to miss the beauty of some of the greatest film art in the world. Foreign films almost always develop character in ways that are rarely seen in Holly wood films that play in our theaters. Children of Heaven was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1998. It also won a number of prestigious awards in other film festivals and several different countries.
Given the way many of us in the West think about Iran these days one way we might gain a perspective on the way people actually live there would be to see a film like Children of Heaven. Children are clearly our greatest human treasure. We easily forget that Iran, a mortal enemy of the West politically is made up of millions of children that are not that unlike our children in the West. In this case “a little child may lead them” could be proved again to be a powerful truth.