June 21, 1996 in Seven

A Movie Gem Reflects A Little Bit Of Real Life

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Ever since the Iranians tossed out their Shah, began living under a strictly religious government, took some Americans hostage for 444 days and embarked on a 10-year-long war with Iraq, the actuality of daily life in that Middle Eastern empire has been kept mostly secret from the Western world.

Iranian style, fashions and celebrities haven’t exactly been spread across the pages of People magazine, have they?

And who can say what a loss that has been to us all? A lot? Only somewhat? Not much at all?

If the Iranian film “The White Balloon” is any indication, the loss has been incalculable.

For in cinematic terms, “The White Balloon” is a precious little gem of minimalist filmmaking. Directed by one of Iran’s brightest new filmmakers (Jafar Panahi) from a script by one of Iran’s film legends (Abbas Kiarostami), “The White Balloon” concerns one afternoon in the life of a young girl (Aida Mohammadkhani).

Told more or less in real time, the film is simplicity personified: It follows the girl as she attempts to get what she wants - a fat goldfish. The film’s tension, such as it is, involves several obstacles thrown in her path.

First of all, it is the eve of the New Year’s holiday and nearly everyone is too preoccupied with the coming celebration to pay attention to a little girl. This includes her parents as well as the various people she meets on the street.

Now add in the complicating factors of the girl needing to get the money to buy her fish, of finding just the fish she wants, but most of all of holding onto the money in a world that seems bent on cheating her at every turn.

In her struggle, the girl has her allies, including her brother (Mohsen Kalifi), a friendly woman she meets in the street, a street vendor, an off-duty soldier and an Afghani balloonseller. Each in his or her own way, though, fails the girl - and one or two, especially the soldier, lend the film a kind of creepy uncertainty - until things ultimately fall into place.

This straightforward storyline depends a lot on the considerable charms of the two child leads.

Mohammadkhani is a study of contrasts: Following her country’s religious conservatism, she dutifully wears a scarf over her hair. At the same time, she pursues her vision of the perfect fish with an obsession not unlike a Western teenager in search of the newest Alanis Morrisette CD. Terminally cute, Mohammadkhani’s facial expression’s range from poutishly spoiled to winningly pretty.

The stalwart Kalifi, meanwhile, is the epitome of the older brother: at once critical and supportive of his little sis.

Much has been made of the supposed hidden political messages of “The White Balloon.” And Iran, despite the film’s having won the Camera d’Or for best first film at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, would not let Panahi’s work be considered for a Best Foreign Language Oscar.

But despite the Iranian government’s censorship, there is little about “The White Balloon” that could be considered overt commentary one way or the other.

Sure, Mohammadkhani’s character isn’t treated with much respect, particularly by older men, and Kalifi’s cowed attitude toward his father suggests physical abuse.

Iran, though, hardly has a monopoly on these kinds of ageist/ sexist behaviors.

The real message of “The White Balloon,” if there is one, seems to be more about the nature of perception - both about how the things we desire so often end up being a big disappointment and how they typically can be found in our own back yard anyway.

Given all the resentment that exists between Iran and America, this view of the film at least offers some hope that the two countries may one day find a common ground for communication.

Sometimes you have to look past what you think is reality to see the larger truth that lurks underneath.

, DataTimes MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “THE WHITE BALLOON” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Jafar Panahi, starring Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kalifi, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani. In Farsi with English subtitles. Running time: 1:35 Rating: Not rated (but equivalent to a PG)

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other reviewers say about “The White Balloon:” Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald: “The White Balloon” would make a terrific children’s film, but it takes grown-up sensibilities to fully savor its pleasures. Simple on the surface yet imbued with a gentle wisdom, it makes your regular movie seem far too complicated - and far too hollow. Jane Sumner/Dallas Morning News: In its quiet, ingenuous way, the gentle film gives off a lot of information. Stephen Whitty/San Jose Mercury News: “The White Balloon” has some moments of grace. Its portrait of everyday Islamic life is interesting. Its ability to tell the story through a child’s eyes isn’t a commonplace talent, either. Perhaps the next time out, Panahi will choose a stronger story, or a different child. We need more images of Islamic life, yes. But we also need better guides. William Arnold/Seattle PostIntelligencer: … this is a very special little gem of a film that in a calm, understated, totally unpretentious way speaks of the universality of all people - and portrays Iranians as multidimensional human beings. In fact, it’s the perfect antidote to all those years of harsh movie stereotyping of Middle Eastern characters.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “THE WHITE BALLOON” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Jafar Panahi, starring Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kalifi, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani. In Farsi with English subtitles. Running time: 1:35 Rating: Not rated (but equivalent to a PG)

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other reviewers say about “The White Balloon:” Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald: “The White Balloon” would make a terrific children’s film, but it takes grown-up sensibilities to fully savor its pleasures. Simple on the surface yet imbued with a gentle wisdom, it makes your regular movie seem far too complicated - and far too hollow. Jane Sumner/Dallas Morning News: In its quiet, ingenuous way, the gentle film gives off a lot of information. Stephen Whitty/San Jose Mercury News: “The White Balloon” has some moments of grace. Its portrait of everyday Islamic life is interesting. Its ability to tell the story through a child’s eyes isn’t a commonplace talent, either. Perhaps the next time out, Panahi will choose a stronger story, or a different child. We need more images of Islamic life, yes. But we also need better guides. William Arnold/Seattle PostIntelligencer: … this is a very special little gem of a film that in a calm, understated, totally unpretentious way speaks of the universality of all people - and portrays Iranians as multidimensional human beings. In fact, it’s the perfect antidote to all those years of harsh movie stereotyping of Middle Eastern characters.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email