children of heaven (majid majidi, 1997)

After watching this movie, I was able to cross it off of several lists I refer to as "Blind Spots", films of some acclaim that I have missed over the years. Among the IMDB lists on which Children of Heaven appears are Sport Top 50 (3rd), Family Top 50 (16th), 1990s Top 50 (31st), and Top 250 (176th). It was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (it lost to Life Is Beautiful, which I haven't seen ... that one is on a lot of my Blind Spot lists, as well) ... it was the first Iranian film to have received an Oscar nomination.

I knew little about the film going in, which is usually how I like it. I admit I was surprised to see it on a Top Sports Movie list ... the IMDB description reads "After a boy loses his sister's pair of shoes, he goes on a series of adventures in order to find them." Which is accurate, but I should have read the next sentence, "When he can't, he tries a new way to 'win' a new pair."

Children of Heaven is a simple story, and writer/director Majid Majidi does an excellent job of showing the world as a child might see it. The latter part of the story, when the boy tries to win the new shoes, is a bit of a stretch, but hey, that's how it goes with sports movies ... the end is always the big race/game/bout. Majidi elicits fine performances from the pair of siblings, and the slice-of-life vision of Iranian life is also illuminating.

All of the above is true, and I can certainly recommend Children of Heaven to fans of family movies. But I confess I wasn't as moved as I thought I should be, which may just be me. It's a fine film.

film fatales #171: the house is black (forugh farrokhzad, 1963)

The House Is Black is a short (21 minutes) documentary about a leper colony in Iran, considered now to be a central movie in Iranian film history. It is the only film directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, an important poet who died in a car accident when she was only 32. Her approach is unique, including voice-over narration by Farrokhzad of her own poetry, along with other narration taken from the Old Testament and the Koran.

While Farrokhzad and cinematographer Soleyman Minasian do not shy away from the realities of what leprosy does to a body, there is no feel of exploitation. We get an honest look at the disease and its effects, but Farrokhzad insists on our also seeing the essential humanity in the people who appear in the movie. As the first lines of narration say, "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."

One wishes that Farrokhzad had lived long enough to give us more films. Over time, The House Is Black has only increased in reputation ... it is #241 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

taste of cherry (abbas kiarostami, 1997)

Roger Ebert famously hated Taste of Cherry:

A case can be made for the movie, but it would involve transforming the experience of viewing the film (which is excruciatingly boring) into something more interesting, a fable about life and death. Just as a bad novel can be made into a good movie, so can a boring movie be made into a fascinating movie review.

This is my fifth Kiarostami film. I have liked the others I have seen, most particularly Close-Up, which I thought was remarkable. I didn't connect with Taste of Cherry. I'm not sure I cared enough to work up the bile that infected Ebert. The film is repetitive, and the cast is comprised of non-professionals mostly improvising (in fairness, the lead actor, Homayoun Ershadi, went on to a long career).

Taste of Cherry is highly regarded, turning up on many lists of the best films of all time (it tied for #243 in the recent Sight and Sound poll). I'm disappointed that I didn't love it ... I'm disappointed that I didn't hate it the way Roger Ebert did. I suspect it deserves a second viewing at some point, at least to see if I would feel more inspired a second time around.

a hero (asghar farhadi, 2021)

Asghar Farhadi is one of our greatest living directors. I've written about some of his films before:

About Elly (2009). "Farhadi has a way of getting inside his characters, exposing them, helping us understand them even when they are acting poorly."

A Separation (2011). "There are no bad characters in the movie, and everyone seems to be trying to live a good and moral life. But they don’t all agree on what is good and moral, and the realities of their lives make compromise almost inevitable."

The Past (2013). "Farhadi takes his time … we meet the main characters, get a feeling for their interactions, see that things are irritable at best. And then we start learning more about the events we thought had been covered in the time the characters were introduced. Watching it unravel is fascinating."

A common theme is the attention Farhadi pays to his characters. They are at the center of his movies, they are complex, they are always both likable and not, although given Farhadi's empathy with those characters, we end up liking them more than we don't. 

The title of this movie is ironic ... the central character, Rahim, follows an arc from prisoner to acclaimed hero and back again, and even his acclaimed status is based on lies. Little lies, to be sure. Rahim is in debtor's prison, and while it's clear how he ended up there, it feels a bit unfair nonetheless. Amir Jadidi, who plays Rahim, has a winning smile, and from the start we are on his side. His heroic act, returning a bag filled with gold coins even though he could use them to help pay off his debts, is the "right" thing to do. But then events overtake the life of this ordinary man. There are cultural reasons why he can't be completely honest about the bag (his girlfriend is the one who finds it, but he claims the act as his own because their affair is a secret one). And once you twist the truth just a little bit, it's increasingly difficult to get your story straight. We understand the need for the little lie, and we don't think less of Rahim because of it. But then others get involved. The story gets out. The prison where he stays wants to turn him into a public example of the possibilities of rehabilitation. He is used by charities to raise money. But one person is obsessed with the little lie, which he suspects hides something bigger. It's Bahram, the man who put him in prison, the man to whom Rahim owes money. Bahram thinks his pride is being insulted; he doesn't believe he did anything wrong in taking Rahim to task for the borrowed money, and it feels like he's jealous that this lowlife is receiving hosannas from the public. As usual for Farhadi, no one is all good and right or all bad and wrong, and events conspire to turn Rahim's life to shit.

I consider A Separation to be one of the best films of our time, but Farhadi has never given us anything less than excellence. Add A Hero to that list.

where is the friend's house (abbas kiarostami, 1987)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order. Week 24 is called "Masters of the (Middle) East Week".

Twisting the rules of this one as well, as we usually showcase East Asian filmmakers here, but this time around, we're taking a trip to the Middle East. Specifically, we're going to take a look at two modern Iranian filmmakers, both of whom create challenging and critically acclaimed cinema.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by either Abbas Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi.

This was an odd one. I could have sworn I'd seen it before. Being obsessive/compulsive, I have a variety of methods for keeping track of what I've seen, most obviously by writing about the movies here on this blog. Well, I've never before written about Where Is the Friend's House?, I've never marked it as watched on any sites, so I decided maybe I hadn't seen it, and I thus chose it for my movie for this week's Challenge. Having watched it, I feel certain I did indeed see it before.

I loved Kiarostami's Close-Up, perhaps the most meta film of all time. I've also seen Certified Copy, which I liked without finding it a classic. But I was frustrated by Where Is the Friend's House?, and it didn't really help that I think Kiarostami wanted that reaction. The story is of a young boy who accidentally takes home the school notebook of a classmate. It is established that the classmate will be expelled if he doesn't come to class with his notebook and his homework. So the young boy decides he must take the notebook to the classmate. But he doesn't know where the friend lives, and when he tries to explain to his mother that he needs to return the notebook, she tells him to do his homework, watch the baby, get bread at the story, basically everything except return the notebook. The boy struggles to express the importance of his mission, and he is frustrated that none of the adults are actually listening to him. He sneaks off, walking from one small town to another, trying to find the friend's house.

It's not an easy trip, because he keeps running into adults who won't listen to him or understand him. Babek Ahmed Poor, an amateur who plays the boy, does a great job of showing frustration. In fact, it's almost too great a job ... I shared his frustration, but not only did I think the adults were too dismissive, I wanted to strangle the tyke for his persistence in bugging everyone. Kiarostami wants us to understand the boy's frustration, and we do, but added to that is my frustration with the boy, which I doubt is what Kiarostami wants us to feel.

Still, my reservations are clearly my own, and your mileage may vary. I'd say I'll watch it again sometime to see if I react differently, except I think this was the "again". #294 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

blu-ray series #11: certified copy (abbas kiarostami, 2010)

I’m familiar with Kiarostami because of his great film, Close-Up, which totally snuck up on me when I saw it. He won’t get that advantage again … I’m ready for excellence from the start. It helped Kiarostami that I held that earlier film in such high regard, because Certified Copy is so annoyingly tricky that I might have given up on it if I didn’t have positive expectations. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Close-Up had more layers than a dozen other movies. As I wrote at the time, “It’s all based on a true story … a man impersonates a noted filmmaker, is caught and tried for fraud, and another filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, becomes fascinated by the story and films a documentary (Close-Up) as the trial takes place. There is footage from the actual trial (I think, anyway), but there are also re-creations of the events in the case. And in those re-creations, the actual people involved play themselves.” Certified Copy, a fictional film, is layered in a different way. The central theme is the relationship between an original and a copy, and whether a copy can be the equal, or even better, than the original. William Shimell (an opera star making his film acting debut) plays a British author who has written a book, Certified Copy, about this topic. Juliette Binoche plays … well, now I’m venturing into the spoiler zone. When we first meet her, she is attending a talk by the author.

The way Kiarostami uses layers here make the notion of spoilers irrelevant. I could tell you what “happens”, but it is never clear if what is happening is “original” or a “copy”. (I know this doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t even a particularly accurate description of the “plot”, but it’s the best I can do without giving a full plot summary with analysis.) Suffice to say that the relationship between the two main characters is never made entirely clear, which makes Certified Copy something of a puzzle movie. But the setting is a lot like Linklater’s Before movies … the two leads wander around an Italian town, jabbering away, and at times they seem to be playacting for other characters who cross their paths, and they always seem to be playacting for the audience … but then, isn’t that what actors do?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the heck was going on. But Binoche and Shimell are great together, and easy on the eyes, as well. #156 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. Best companion piece would be the Before Trilogy.

what i watched last week

Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990). Sometimes, my “method” for choosing what to watch is very rewarding. Close-Up arrived via Netflix … I’d placed it in my queue, although I barely remembered why (it is #218 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 films of all time). When I stuck the disc into the player, I knew little to nothing about the film … documentary, made in Iran, 1990. If you read any further, you’ll know more than I did, so you might want to turn your head, because even in a short paragraph, I can’t go on without explaining what the film is “about.” It’s all based on a true story, natch … a man impersonates a noted filmmaker, is caught and tried for fraud, and another filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, becomes fascinated by the story and films a documentary (Close-Up) as the trial takes place. There is footage from the actual trial (I think, anyway), but there are also re-creations of the events in the case. And in those re-creations, the actual people involved play themselves. You can’t help but notice that the man on trial is accused of acting the part of someone else, which may not be as far from playing yourself as we might think. I won’t give away the ending, but it adds another layer. Meanwhile, of course, there’s the matter of Kiarostami, who imposes his vision on events, real and re-created. Watching the movie, things move along quite smoothly, but five minutes after it’s over, as your mind twists around all of the implications of what it has just seen, things are no longer so smooth.

Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010). The sign atop the theater read “A Mike Leigh Joint,” which I thought was pretty clever. I liked this movie quite a lot, about which more in a bit, but I have to hand it to Karina Longworth, who truly hated it, for closing her review by noting, “I haven’t seen a film this year that so openly invited me to revile each and every one of its characters—and I reviewed The Human Centipede.” I found the characters to be human (not centipede). They had their foibles, and there are many uncomfortable scenes in Another Year where people act in socially inappropriate ways. But in most of the cases, we aren’t meant to revile them, but to appreciate the place from which they are coming. Lesley Manville is terrific as a middle-aged secretary who knows her life is going to shit, and she is given a lot of scenes that are guaranteed Oscar Moments. It’s a sign of how well she pulls off those scenes that she didn’t get an Oscar nomination … I guess she was too subtle. Imelda Staunton steals the picture, even though she’s only in a couple of scenes near the beginning. She’s the most miserable creature in movie history … asked to name the moment in her life when she was happiest, she stares into space without answering. She is, in fact, reluctant to saying anything other than “give me something to help me sleep.” Yet when she is asked where on a scale of 1 to 10 would she rank her level of happiness, she blurts out “ONE!” before the question has left the speaker’s lips. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.