When is a kid's film not for kids? When it uses child characters to portray universal adult dilemmas, when one simple but philosophically profound problem propels all the action, and when a witty script attempts to capture the foibles of grownups in all their childish (or, more accurately, unchildlike) guile and pretension.
By all means, take the kids--if you have any--to the remarkable new Iranian feature The White Balloon, directed and edited by acclaimed newcomer Jafar Panahi. Make sure they are not only old enough (and patient enough) to read subtitles, but can cut through the content constraints of a Muslim filmmaker's art to understand this profound fable of a stubborn, uppity, resourceful 7-year-old girl named Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) who surfs hellish high waters for the perfect goldfish. For that matter, make sure you are just as prepared.
The White Balloon earned its Western kudos (including the Camera D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival) honestly. The film was written by Abbas Kiarostami (Through the Olive Trees), the veteran filmmaker who was arguably the first Iranian to win a worldwide following through the international festival circuit. His work, which flourished under the Shah's surprisingly permissive (but politically vigilant) reign, was deemed inappropriate during the Islamic Revolution instigated by the Ayatollah.
Jafar Panahi, who had collaborated on Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees and was savvy enough to get his own short films produced under Khomeini's disapproving nose, had already been trained to employ symbolism as a means of portraying unflattering emotions. Like Kiarostami, who relied on abstract narrative and visual themes to deliver his social criticism, Panahi was forced to go underneath the script to examine controversial issues like gender inequality, family discord, and personal ambition. While oppression makes for a miserable everyday life, it often produces great art: The White Balloon crackles with a barely sublimated rebelliousness based on one girl's refusal to listen to her elders.
Initially, little Razieh seems like just another spoiled brat in the worst Western tradition. She is easily enchanted by an open window, a charming stranger, and especially a fat goldfish--although the courtyard of her home contains many of the latter. ("They're too skinny!" she insists about her homegrown fish.)
In the opening sequence, her caustic, black-clad mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) searches for Razieh in a Teheran marketplace crowded by folks preparing for a national holiday. It's the Iranian New Year, or Naw-Ruz, which happens on the first day of spring.
The film frames its real-time action through a series of radio countdowns interspersed throughout the story.
Razieh bribes her grumpy brother, Ali (Mohsen Kalifi), with the gift of a white balloon to con their stressed-out mother, who divides her time between cleaning for the holidays and caring for a husband who never seems to leave the bathroom. Ali gets a 500 note to be used for Razieh's coveted goldfish and a new pair of shoes for himself. Unfortunately, he gives it all to the impetuous Razieh, who is waylaid by the sight of con-artist snake charmers, display-window pastries, and a handsome soldier on leave who insists she resembles his own little sister.
Fortunately, Razieh is unfazed in her pursuit of the coveted marketplace goldfish (which is, in fact, a much paler shade, "as white and plump as a bride," Razieh sighs).
In the film's most unsettling sequence, Razieh challenges a pair of gray-haired street charlatans who snatch her bill from the fishbowl she carries. Finally overcome by the crowd of jeering young males who've gathered to watch the two performers' poisonous snake act, she resorts to the same tactic that has earned her titles as various as "the sweet little angel" and "the pain": She cries.
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As Razieh, 7-year-old Aida Mohammadkhani amuses, startles, and triumphs. Americans are accustomed to watching child actors bluff their way through inexperience, or wield precocious early training like a sledgehammer. Director Jafar Panahi has insisted in numerous interviews that he worked with the young actors in The White Balloon on a strictly improvisational basis. He kept the script as obscure as he could, inciting each kid to react with what the scene brought and no more.
Perhaps Panahi deserves credit for the film's seamless, naturalistic exchange between grownups and children, but assisted or not, Aida Mohammadkhani supplies the heroic anchor we return to again and again. Just like most 7-year-olds, she is belligerent when crossed, tearful when hopeless, and ecstatic at each minor victory. Her relentless high-pitched nasal voice is an instrument of angry retribution which no adult can ignore.
The White Balloon ends on an eerier, more ambiguous note than the film's character-driven sequences might presage. In the film's chaotic opener, Director Jafar Panahi introduces one young character so quickly you'll miss him if you blink. He is featured in the movie's final lingering moment, the carrier of the white balloon abandoned by the sister and brother. Modest but heartbreaking, The White Balloon traffics in such subtle twists of fate.
The White Balloon. October Films. Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kalifi, Mohammad Bahktiari. Written by Abbas Kiarostami, from an idea by Jafar Panahi and Parviz Shahbazi. Directed by Jafar Panahi. Now showing at the Inwood.