Iranian director Majid Majidi received a mantelful of awards, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and got some American attention for his 1997 feature Children of Heaven, the simple story of a little boy who loses a pair of shoes and goes to great lengths to keep the news from his father. Baran, Majidi's latest film, is once again Iran's official entry into the Oscar sweepstakes and a strong contender for the award itself--not merely because it's a stronger film and precisely the kind of movie Academy members tend to embrace, but also because it has a timeliness Majidi couldn't possibly have predicted.
That's because Baran deals with the tensions between Iranians and the Afghan refugees who flooded the country during a 22-year period of war and repression. According to a crawl at the beginning of the film, "In 2001 Iran is home to more than 1.5 million Afghans, one of the largest refugee populations in the world." So we all bring to Baran some illuminating baggage that most of us didn't have three months ago, a sense of just how wretched life under the Taliban was and of why so many people would trade everything to live as aliens, often illegal, in a country that has its own share of governmental and economic problems. When we see certain characters decide to return to Afghanistan, it packs a greater wallop than Majidi could have known.
On the surface, Baran, like Children of Heaven, has an utterly simple, linear story. Lateef (Hossein Abedini) is an Iranian teen-ager who works for construction foreman Memar (Mohammad Reza Naji) at a building site. Many of his co-workers are illegal Afghans, and whenever the government inspectors arrive, they have to run for cover. As foreman, Memar tries to play tough, but he is, in fact, a nice guy; he may be exploiting the Afghans, but he does everything he can to keep them working and keep them safe, which sticks in Lateef's craw. While the others do all the heavy lifting, Lateef feels discriminated against: He's the support staff, and his main duties are shopping, cooking and serving tea to the other workers. Indeed, he seems to have the plum job. He ignores the fact that he's the youngest and the Afghans would have a harder time with the shopping since merchants may ask for identification.
He seems to be developing into a petty, sniping racist even before the new kid, Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami), arrives. Rahmat, who is introduced as the son of a recently injured Afghan worker, is clearly even younger and weaker than Lateef. Memar is reluctant to hire him, but after Soltan (Hossein Rahimi), an Afghan elder, explains how the family will have no income otherwise, Memar, always the soft touch, caves in.
Lateef resents the presence of yet another Afghani intruder; he dislikes it even more when Rahmat, clearly incompetent at construction work, takes over his job. Though Lateef is switched to heavy labor, he manages to grab whatever spare moments he can to sneak away and sabotage Rahmat. Despite his best efforts, however, the new kid is a hit; he's clearly much better at cooking and serving than Lateef ever was. In fact, Lateef soon learns why Rahmat is so much more adept at these things.
While reconnoitering in preparation for more mischief, Lateef sneaks a peek into the kitchen and sees Rahmat take off "his" headgear and start to brush long, wavy hair. Rahmat is actually Baran, the girl of the title. It must be said that Majidi seems to think this will come as a surprise--the film's publicity is very coy about Rahmat's "secret"--but this must reflect some Iranian cultural or cinematic convention. Simply, it's hard to imagine any American watching the film and not immediately thinking, "Hey! That's a girl, not a boy!" the moment Rahmat first shows up.
The inexperienced Lateef instantly gets a crush on Rahmat and switches from her main persecutor to her prime defender, even risking arrest to save her from the Iranian version of the INS. She escapes back to the nearby Afghan settlement where her family is, without Lateef ever having gotten up the nerve to acknowledge to her what he knows and what he feels. It is only then that we see the extent to which love has changed his character.
For cultural reasons, Baran can be as frustrating as a Jane Austen book: You want to grab the kid by the shoulders and say, "Fer cryin' out loud, tell her how you feel already! Stop lurking in the shadows!" But we're dealing with a teen-ager in a relatively repressive culture where our standards of courtship don't apply.
Majidi gets uniformly engaging performances from his largely amateur cast, including Bahrami, who, as Baran/Rahmat, has the second most important role but only one or two lines of dialogue. She must make us understand why Lateef is so smitten with nothing more than partially hidden facial expressions. If the performances are the prime reason the film is as engaging as it is, it must also be said that Majidi's visual style seems far more sophisticated than in Children of Heaven, which, like so many Iranian films, seemed to have been largely shot quick and dirty in available light. Here there are any number of beautifully lit and composed scenes, as well as some expressive and graceful uses of camera movement.
While the current world situation gives the film some extra context for American viewers, no one should expect a political tract here. The political conditions in the region are only a setup for a story of first love and how larger events can both create and frustrate intimate feelings.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.