July 10, 2002

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Stream of life
Love crosses borders in Majid Majidi's Baran.

By Robert Avila

THE IDEA FOR writer-director Majid Majidi's new film had been germinating for some time. In fact, Baran grew out of his experience 10 years ago on the border between Iran and Afghanistan while he was shooting his very first feature, Baduk. There, corpses by the side of the road were not an uncommon sight.

"And when I tried to find out the story behind them, I realized that the people killed were Afghani migrant workers who would cross the border at night so they wouldn't get caught," Majidi says, during a recent interview. "But there were trucks of drug dealers also crossing the border using the cover of night, so they would drive with no lights. That was the reason there were these bodies scattered around on those back roads. That's the scene that started the idea in my mind."

By box-office measures, Majidi became Iran's most successful filmmaker with 1997's Children of Heaven, a sad and sweet tale of urban poverty that garnered prestigious honors at home and abroad, including the country's first Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Then came The Color of Paradise, about a blind boy and his strained relationship with his father, to date the highest-grossing Iranian film in the United States. Popular appeal is no happy coincidence: Majidi has worked for it all along.

"I've always tried to take the middle road," he says. "Not to make movies just for the box office [or the art house], but to make the kind of movie in which I preserve and reflect my own vision [and] also use cinematic elements to create something appealing to people." A striking, altogether timely film about young love and the plight of Iran's Afghan refugees, Baran finds the director in top form – telling a simple but compelling tale using highly accessible cinematic language.

The story concerns Lateef (Hossein Abedini), a good-natured but impetuous, mischievous teenager who works as the steward on a large Tehran construction site. Among the crew he serves are a group of Afghan refugees; the opening titles inform us that about three million have come to Iran since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In a situation Americans should have no problem recognizing, the illegal immigrants work for less pay than their Iranian counterparts, without security of any kind, and in continual danger of being rounded up by the authorities.

The crew's foreman, Memar (Reza Naji), does his best for them, while also watching over Lateef on behalf of the boy's parents. Accordingly, he holds back the bulk of Lateef's wages, lest he squander his savings. Lateef, for his part, constantly begs Memar for money, squirreling away the little he gets in a tin can he hides in a wall.

Sympathetic but self-interested, Lateef is a brash loner, and his immaturity repeatedly displays itself in thoughtless insensitivity. The movie's story takes a decisive turn when Lateef makes a startling discovery that leaves him reeling: namely, Baran (Zahra Bahrami), a young Afghan girl bravely providing for her desperate family. When a raid by immigration authorities forces all Afghans to flee the construction site, the family's situation worsens. As the smitten Lateef unhesitatingly sacrifices all to aid and protect his beloved, his transformation evinces considerable humor and compassion.

Along the way, Majidi demonstrates how love ennobles by changing one's relation to the world. In addition to acts of anonymous heroism, we see Lateef caring for birds he once threw stones at (but now remembers Baran feeding) and caring for a plant she might have nurtured. It's first love's gift that we come to realize all life as precious, simply because all life is suddenly reminiscent of the loved one.

Whatever artistic compromises mass appeal entails, Baran remains superbly acted and expertly told. And Majidi has made a visually breathtaking picture. Where The Color of Paradise captured the rapturous beauty of an idyllic Iranian countryside, Baran is no less beautiful a picture for being set largely in an urban construction site. Impressive tracking shots and camera angles guide the eye into a dark but radiant winter color scheme.

Moreover, the film's love story achieves an artful relationship to its social context. For all its stark realism, Baran plays like a parable. Hence, Baran, the agent of Lateef's development, is also the word for rain. This life-giving force also washes away all human-made things, dissolving footprints in the earth or lines in the sand; in this sense, it resembles the love that fills and overflows the vessel of the heart, dissolving the line separating the self from all life. Baran suggests that the real choice lies not in malign dichotomies of good and evil but between a politics of hate and one of compassion. "I have great confidence in the power of love and emotional ties in bringing people together, and that's what Baran is about," Majidi says. "Baran is about how love can go beyond any borders."

'Baran' opens Fri/12 at the Galaxy, S.F. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.