(Air Date: Week Of 03/13/96)
If the phrase "Iranian cinema" sounds like an oxymoron to you, I shouldn't be surprised. But stay tuned, for an intriguing new movement is afoot that recalls both Italian neorealism and the nonjudgmental compassion of Indian master Satyajit Ray. This appealing trend in Iranian movies is due largely to the groundbreaking efforts of director Abbas Kiarostami, who turns up as the screenwriter of the award-winnning new film, "The White Balloon."
The plot is simple, almost primitive: A 7-year-old girl persuades her mother to cough up her last sawbuck in order to buy a goldfish for the family New Year's ceremony, which begins in a matter of hours. Out on the streets anxiously tracking her prize, our tiny heroine meets shifty snake charmers and numerous other Tehran characters. But the melodrama kicks in when the little girl loses her money in a curbside gutter, and boldly asks strangers to help. That's it. No chase scenes, no special effects, no silicon-enhanced stars.
"The White Balloon" is pretty great for most of the way because it offers a fascinating, fly- on-the-wall look at mainstream Iranian society. This isn't an art film, certainly not in any overt way. So it's kind of a relief, for once, to plug into a film where the motivations of all the characters are totally understandable. I think that may have something to do with why "The White Balloon" won the prize at Cannes last year for best first feature, since it's a godsend to encounter a straightforward, unpretentious movies after several days of watching films made by Kubrick and Bertolucci wannabes. Take my word for it.
On the other hand, you have to love children substantially more than I do to dig "The White Balloon" all the way through. Cute is cute, but there's such a thing as too much. I wanted to scream at the little girl, "Get over it! Forget about your stupid fish!" Or, with apologies to Ray Davies and Chrissie Hynde, "Stop your sobbing!"
If "The White Balloon" contains any symbolism or metaphorical comment on Iran's political or social climate--and I'm sure it does--it went over my head. I prefer to take this mostly winning film as a pivotal day in the childhood of one innocent girl.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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