Majid Majidi begins his new film with a caption dedicating it to the 152 million children who have been forced into child labor. It’s an important and sobering statistic, but not necessarily one that leads you to expect a rollicking hour-and-a-half’s entertainment.
In fact, though, “Khorshid” (or “Sun Children”) is quite the thrill ride, mixing a Dickensian, social-realist account of children in poverty in Tehran with a kinetic, far-fetched heist movie and a well-meaning drama about a kindly teacher who would, in a 1980s American film, have been played by Robin Williams. Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” was the first Iranian film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, back in 1999 (Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” won). “Sun Children,” which was the top prize-winner at Tehran’s Fajr International Film Festival in February, could have a similar crossover appeal.
Its hero is 12-year-old Ali (Rouhollah Zamani), an Artful Dodger who runs around the bustling city streets with his three best friends. The young actors all come from a background as tough as their characters’, and while they are more notable for their furious energy than their acting chops, that’s more than enough. The boys are first seen flipping the covers off various luxury cars in a shopping mall’s car park, checking out badge after gleaming badge until they find the make they’re looking for: one of their many hustles is to steal wheels to order for a tire yard. Some Bourne-worthy scrambles across rooftops and chases around the subway system follow, but the boys are only doing what they have to to survive. Their parents are either dead, in prison, or otherwise “absent.” Ali’s mother (Tannaz Tabatagaei, an Iranian star whose entire role consists of lying unconscious in a bed) has been hospitalized, and he can’t bring her home when he doesn’t have a home for her.
His only hope is a pigeon-fancying gangster, Hashem (the coolly menacing Ali Nassirian), a wizened kingpin who promises to find Ali somewhere to live in return for a small favour. There is a treasure trove hidden beneath a cemetery, Hashem says, but the only way to reach it is via a maintenance tunnel under an inner-city school. All Ali and his buddies have to do is enroll in the school, and they can sneak down to the basement, nip along the tunnel and retrieve the treasure. The tragic part is that Ali sees this as a wonderfully generous deal.
Majidi has fun with the irony of a gang of boys begging a head teacher (Ali Ghabeshi) for education, and the head teacher shooing them away. Luckily for them, a handsome, noble and altogether movie star-ish teacher, Mr. Rafie (Javad Ezzati), is so pleased by their enthusiasm that he gives them a chance. His faith is justified. One of the boys stuns his classmates with his footballing skills (and Ali collects money from betting on him), another uses his experience of cutting tiles to work out fractions. But, alongside these fish-out-of-water hijinks, Ali himself keeps sneaking away from classes to go on his nerve-racking treasure hunt, a task which turns out to require not just strolling along a tunnel, but digging through meters of earth and rock. No one claustrophobic should dream of watching this film.
Majidi and his co-writer, Nima Javidi, keep weaving in new plot strands. One of the boys is an Afghan immigrant who will be sent to a refugee camp if he gets into trouble. His bright, hard-nosed sister (scene-stealing Shamila Shirzad, turning in the best performance in the film) knows that she will suffer most if the boys’ perilous scheme is discovered. And then there is the fate of the “Sun School” for street kids and child laborers, an overcrowded, underfunded institution that has provided hundreds of boys with their first taste of care and stability, but could close at any moment if its head teacher can’t persuade its benefactors to pay the rent.
There are plenty more subplots where those came from, all of them crammed into 99 minutes. The ambition to cover so many related issues is admirable, and, overall, Majidi does so with tremendous, crowd-pleasing skill. But certain incidents are dispensed with so abruptly that viewers won’t be sure what happened, so the film can feel over-edited. And certain characters aren’t given time to develop past sentimental stereotypes. What is always powerfully clear, though, is Majidi’s conviction that too many children are in a desperate plight due to the neglect or the active exploitation of adults. And what is unforgettable is the sight of the exhausted, tearful Ali, hacking away at the mud in increasingly dark, damp dangerous conditions, all to reach treasure which is never likely going to buy him the life he deserves.
“Sun Children” is currently seeking U.S. distribution.