REVIEW: Taking Care; Majidi's "Baran" Strikes Timely Chords of Romance and Refugees
by Brandon Judell
[This review originally appeared on Dec. 5, 2001, when Miramax released "Baran" for a one-week Oscar qualification run.]
Nowadays, it's rather hard for the arts to imaginatively compete with American industry in assuaging our nation's sorrow. For example, what film, sculpture or symphony could compete with the brainchild of Paul S. Michaels, President Masterfoods USA. His campaign "Taking Care of America Every Day" is unleashing to your local convenience stores red, white, and blue M&M's in specially designed bags draped with the American flag. ($3,000,000 will speculatively be raised for the Red Cross, an organization already proven a bit inept at handling the money already in its coffers.)
This is pure brilliance, supplying comedy, drama, and sugar while placing a positive spin on gluttony. The more obese you are now, the more patriotic you will seem, especially if you're seen gulping down red, white and blue candy niblets. No doubt soon to follow will be red, white and blue condoms, vibrators, beer cans and bullets.
Less ingenious but more talented, Majid Majidi, the world master director of such features as "The Color of Paradise" and "Children of Heaven," has come up with a more mentally nutritious approach to the world's current conflict. Although his latest film, "Baran," was shot before the demise of the Twin Towers, it couldn't be more timely. So much so, he has had to address the matter in his updated press notes:
"On behalf of Iranian people, Iranian cinema and myself, I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to the American people over the inhuman tragedy that struck New York. Without a doubt, this disaster brought pain to our hearts and souls, and its bitter memory will always be with us."
He then goes on to his feature: "'Baran' is a glimpse at the Afghan refugees who have been living in Iran for the past three decades. According to the International Red Cross' statistics, one million and four hundred thousand Afghanis are living in Iran. But the real number borders on three million. The savage rule of the Taliban in recent years has displaced a great number of Afghani people into the border towns of the neighboring countries . . . ."
Putting aside the notion that any director is capable of speaking for his country -- imagine Todd Phillips, David Lynch, or the Coen Brothers speaking out for us -- "Baran" is a superbly compassionate film that supplies an understanding of a people our tabloids and talk radio shows love to loathe.
Refusing to be epic in form, Majidi concentrates on one construction site of a building that seems will never be completed. His hero is Lateef (Hossein Abedini), a short-wired Iranian teenager with a run-of-the-mill beauty accentuated by facial hair that's just graduating from the peach fuzz state. Lateef's daily tasks include serving workers tea and buying their groceries. This is a job of leisure compared to carrying bags of cement and knocking down walls as he soon discovers.
One day an Afghani worker -- Afghani immigrants are working illegally on the site -- is injured. Shortly, Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami), the crippled gent's slight and silent "son" shows up on the site to make up the wages his father can no longer earn.
Through some incidents partially of his own doing, Lateef loses his job of leisure to Rahmat and is soon tearing down walls and inhaling cement dust with the workers he once capriciously serviced. Instant hate rises in his heart for his replacement until a wind changes his outlook.
On one blustery afternoon, a breeze blows aside the kitchen curtain that hides Rahmat while he brews tea. What Lateef glimpses in those few seconds is that Rahmat is actually a young beautiful girl who's combing her long, usually hidden, splendid tresses. The Arabic version of Cupid immediately discharges an arrow into the boy's heart, and Lateef quickly becomes Rahmat/Baran's protector.
This in the end is an emotionally stirring love story in the same way "The Bicycle Thief" or "Mamma Roma" are family tales. "Baran" simply rips open a society in which survival of the displaced and, for that matter, the placed insists upon perpetual toil and diligence. Here an ID card is worth a pound of flesh. Here the notion of "self" is almost a fool's luxury.
Using non-actors (Bahrami was discovered in a refugee camp), Majidi has made a film that is as entertaining as it is of major relevance today. Who are the people we helped place under the rule of the Taliban? Who are these folk that we are now freeing from their yoke? As for Iran, can we rely on the Bush administration to set a policy that does her people justice?
"Baran" makes you care.