In case you’ve been living in a cave—or in a Blockbuster Video—for the last several years, contemporary Iranian cinema is brilliant and, by God, important. Kindly turn in your self-respect as a cinéaste if you were previously unaware.
If there’s one reason lay moviegoers are suspicious of critics, it’s that they perceive them as aesthetic fascists along the lines of Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity. It’s not enough for some critics to provide thoughtful analysis—they’ve got to lambaste those whose tastes they perceive as too vanilla, propping up their own obscure darlings as the real art in an otherwise hopeless wasteland. Read Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, and you’ll suspect he thinks that an Iranian director couldn’t fail to create a masterpiece if he was videotaping his cousin’s wedding reception.
The most tragic consequence of such behavior is that moviegoers see critics as parents hectoring them to eat their cinematic vegetables because they’re good for you. Majid Majidi’s Baran hails from Iran, but the reason to see it isn’t that you’re supposed to. This is film storytelling that works the way all great film storytelling works—it takes a fundamentally compelling narrative, then renders it with timely punches of visual energy.
Baran’s narrative follows a young Iranian named Lateef (Hossein Abedini) who works at a construction site. Lateef has scored the cushy job of shopping for the workers’ meals and preparing their tea, while undocumented Afghan immigrants do most of the hard labor for lower wages. But one day, an Afghan worker named Najaf (Gholam Ali Bakhsi) breaks his foot on the job, and in a desperate attempt to maintain income, sends his teenage son Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami) to fill in for him. When Rahmat proves too frail for the more physically demanding work, the foreman forces Rahmat and Lateef to trade assignments. Lateef is outraged at Rahmat for costing him his sweet gig, until he learns a secret about Rahmat that becomes an obsession for Lateef.
If the on-screen mini-history that precedes Baran sets off pretension detectors, it’s understandable. The film provides a detailed text description of how many Afghans fled war and the Taliban’s oppression for Iran, despite the fact that the information proves completely unnecessary to the story that follows. Just a few seconds into Baran, it already feels like someone’s trying to bludgeon you with its relevance as a historical document.
Ignore the urge to flee—Majidi’s tale evolves into an engrossing character study spiked by Abedini’s urgent performance. At the outset, Lateef scuffles along picking up found coins on the street, bugging his boss for back wages he really only needs for candy and cigarettes. As he comes to understand the struggles faced by the Afghan families around him, he matures into a man willing to sacrifice almost anything he has for someone who needs it even more. Baran does offer a vivid sense of gender inequity and of the plight faced by Afghan refugees, but Majidi never sacrifices the essential humanity at the film’s core to lecture on Iranian sociopolitics circa the turn of the 21st century.
And if even that content makes you wary of a PBS travelogue disguised as drama, consider this: Baran also delivers one of the year’s most poignant love stories. That’s some achievement, given Iran’s notoriously strict censorship of any content involving women. Majidi even turns the inability to show a woman’s hair into a hypnotic scene of Lateef entranced by the silhouette of a woman combing her hair. Later, Majidi achieves a similar tension-packed work-around when he shows Lateef helping his beloved pick up spilled vegetables, their hands crossing without ever quite touching. As was the case in the days of this country’s restrictive Hays Code, a talented filmmaker says more by showing less, and the effect is electrifying.
Maybe, then, Baran does show us why contemporary Iranian films garner so much attention. Yes, they teach us about the Islamic world at a time when we all should be paying more attention to it, but they also teach us a little about our own film history from a time when you had to be smart and crafty to tell a sensuous story. Baran simmers with too much intelligence and passion for viewers to ignore it just because they’re afraid it’s another plate of vegetables.