By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
Theres something to be said in favor of a tight production budget: It forces movie directors to avoid gadgetry and sensationalism.
In The Children of Heaven (Miramax), which Iranian writer/director Majid Majidi made with minimal funding, he focuses on 9-year-old Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) and his younger sister Zahra (Bahareh Seddiqui) as they race desperately through the back alleys of Teheran. Majidi works with such passion and with such clear affection for the struggling urban poor he depicts, that his film will elicit a deep response from any audience not hopelessly addicted to nonstop violence.
The opening shot is of a pair of broken-down shoes. Ali waits patiently as the camera points out the shoemakers dirty, knowing hands as they glue and sew. The boy pays the man, puts the shoes in a bag, and rushes off to the nearby grocery to get some potatoes. He leaves the bag under a table. Unfortunately, while he is inside, a rag man comes by and takes it away, believing it has been discarded. Alis desperation can be read in his huge brown eyes, but after upsetting several boxes of fruit in a frantic search, he has to go home and explain to Zahra that he does not have her shoes.
This is the premise of the whole plot, the central fact in the life of these children as they experience it. Zahra is so desperate she threatens to tell their father, but the bond between brother and sister is too strong. Besides, their father is behind with the rent, their mother is ill and caring for a new baby; it is up to them to figure out how Zahra can get to school without shoes.
What The Children of Heaven dramatizes is the impossibility of intergenerational communication. Since they cannot explain the situation to their parents or their teachers, the children decide that Zahra will wear Alis sneakers to go to school in the morning, then race back so that he can wear them while running to his school in the afternoon.
The situation leads to small adventures and provides a convincing picture of the inner city. At home in the rug-lined central room where the family struggles for survival, the children help their mother and do their homework. We only get to see the wider city and its wealthy suburbs when the father takes Ali with him on his bike as he looks for gardening jobs to supplement his income. After a long search, an older man engages the father, principally so that his lonely grandson will have Ali as a playmate for a few hours.
I got caught up in the race Ali enters in the hope of finishing third -- and thereby winning a pair of shoes for his sister but the sequence is too long and strains for effect.
Although The Children of Heaven does not have the aesthetic subtlety of such recent Iranian movies as Jafar Panahis The White Balloon, its presentation of everyday life is equally authentic.
Moments of quiet humor alternate with tender exchanges between brother and sister; especially effective are the reminders of the dignity of the culture it portrays. The father insists he is unworthy of the money the older man pays him for gardening. An elaborate ritual surrounds the generosity with which Ali and Zahras parents send soup to a sick neighbor even though they have barely enough to eat.
The ending is bittersweet. Ali reproaches himself because he has not won the sneakers, but Zahra offers no recriminations, simply accepting the reality they share. We learn enough to realize that things will get better for the family soon, if only for a while. What Majidi is stressing, however, is something more important the attitude toward life these children possess.
Robert Mondello was perceptive when he commented on National Public Radio that if The Children of Heaven could be shown on national TV, it might change U.S. policy toward Iran. Lobby your local art theater to get it booked in your area, and if it comes, take your children along.
If My Name is Joe (Artisan) presents a harsher world, director Ken Loach looks at its drug-ridden Glasgow neighborhood with equal compassion.
Its title character, Joe Kavanaugh (Peter Mullan), is a recovering alcoholic, likable, boisterous and self-confident. Mullan was voted best actor at Cannes last year for his performance, and the energy with which he coaches a hapless soccer team made up of local semi-delinquents is contagiously humorous.
The film is marked by an insistent stream of foul language, a by-product of its documentary-like observation of young men living on the dole. However, the communitys real problem is not its tough-talking young men but the absence of jobs for them and the control exercised by a ruthless drug boss.
He places us so squarely in the local scene that he wisely adds subtitles to compensate for the unintelligible Glasgow dialect.
Hope is suggested by Joes basic decency and the nurturing skills of Sarah (Louise Goodall), a social worker who strengthens his desire for a productive life. Their growing relationship is conveyed with a naturalness and emotional depth that has been all too rare in recent films. Joes efforts to wallpaper Sarahs apartment have bits of comedy, since neither he nor the coworker he brings along are experienced at wallpapering.
It also increases our understanding of Joes frustration, since an overzealous social service bureaucrat wants to punish him for having an unreported job.
Sarahs warm responsiveness gives Joe enough confidence to confess to her why he no longer drinks: It is an ugly story of a drunken rage in which he brutally beat his former girlfriend. Even after that disclosure, Sarah is able to enjoy a date at the bowling alley.
Loach, one of the few major directors (Land and Freedom, Ladybird, Ladybird) who is a committed socialist, doesnt deaden his movie with ideological pleading.
A muted minor theme might be detected in the nominal Catholicism of several of the main characters. The purely official remarks of the priest at the funeral for the young man Joe was trying to help sadly confirm the churchs remoteness from ordinary people in the community.
Affliction (Lions Gate Films) lives up to its name; dont go to it as a date movie. Paul Schrader, previously better known for his screenplays for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ) than for his own films, has directed his finest, most ambitious work. The trouble is that he wants us to respond to it as tragedy.
Although Nick Nolte gives a mesmerizing performance as Wade Whitehouse, pity never makes us forget were watching a neurotic loser out of touch with reality.
Based on a novel by Russell Banks, like last years powerfully compassionate The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction evokes the depressing influence of long Northern winters, this time in Lawton, N.H.
Its clear from the outset that Wade is deeply troubled. Separated from his wife, his emotional neediness so frightens his young daughter that she calls her mother to be taken home. Its painful to follow Wade around town as he misjudges one situation after another, but he never completely forfeits our sympathy.
On the other hand, humiliated since childhood there are flashbacks to scenes with his abusive father (James Coburn), who even as an old man continues to have contempt for him Wade remains a victim, never having the power to affect how his life turns out.
Part of my resistance to recognizing Wade as a tragic figure comes from the often intrusive and pretentious way his story is narrated by his brother. Rolf (Willem Dafoe) suffered under the same father but withdrew to Boston and the teaching of history. Nolte made me feel Wades pain, which clearly needed some violent outlet, yet when the climax came it seemed more pictorially spectacular than significant.
Wade is supposed to be the towns law enforcement officer, but he never gets any respect, even when he extends his arms to control traffic as school lets out. A visiting hunter dies in the snow, and he blunders onto an explanation of murder and conspiracy. He fails to see the ongoing real estate swindle that will leave the town as just a part of a ski resort.
In each incident, he is left staggering, off balance, drinking to hide his defeat, a diminished but authentic son of an alcoholic father. Affliction is an honorable effort to incorporate violence in the service of a genuine inevitability. The problem is that Wades father is simply a monster and his brother is too detached to lead us beyond the pain.
Joseph Cunneen, who has been reviewing movies in NCR since 1988, has never been nominated for an Oscar.
National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999