The Color of Paradise can reduce even the most jaded filmgoer to open-mouthed astonishment.
Iranian writer/director Majid Majidi has taken a tale that would have made Dickens proud and presented it in such a way that it seems both utterly realistic and achingly poetic.
Simultaneously a religious parable and a socially conscious drama, The Color of Paradise is unforgettable.
Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani) is an 8-year-old boy who spends most of each year in a Tehran school for the blind. Now, at the end of term, he's left twiddling his thumbs while all the other children are picked up by their parents.
Left alone in a park-like setting, Mohammad's attention is focused on nearby chirping. A tiny bird has fallen from a tree and is being threatened by a hungry cat; on hands and knees Mohammad searches for the distressed creature, retrieves it and then risks his neck by climbing up the tree, feeling his way along the branches, and replacing the hatchling in its nest.
It's just the first of several quietly riveting segments in a film that repeatedly finds the profound in the everyday.
Eventually Mohammad's father, Hashem (Hossein Mahjoub), shows up, only to beg the school administrators to keep the boy all summer. They send him off with a rebuke, and father and son board a bus for Hashem's home village.
Once there, Hashem's predicament becomes apparent. A gloomy, bitter widower with two young daughters, Hashem is afraid that the burden of a blind son is going to scotch his plans to wed a well-to-do woman whose fiance died some years before. He immediately begins working on a plan to dump the kid.
Meanwhile Mohammad is glorying in the attentions of his sisters and his doting grandmother (Salameh Feyzi), and in one moment of pure triumph manages to show up the sighted kids at the local school by whipping through his Braille lessons at an astonishing speed.
But The Color of Paradise isn't just about a little boy who experiences this world through sound, smell, and touch. It's also very much the story of Hashem, a man who sees in the physical sense but cannot recognize the beauty around him.
Paradise is performed with such naturalism that you might initially wonder if the cast is comprised entirely of non professionals. Certainly Mohsen Ramezani is sightless, and among the other cast members there's not a hint of anything that might be described as an acting method.
The one pro in the cast, as far as I’ve been able to determine, is Mahjoub as the father, who delivers a superbly modulated, subtle performance. Any other film would treat Hashem as a villain, but in Majhub's hands he becomes an object of pity, a man reduced by poverty and lack of social standing to an empty shell.
Though it contains elements of melodrama, Majidi's film never seems contrived or manipulative.
It's a visually splendid piece, filled with quietly pulsating color and light. And it even has an action scene – a rescue attempt from a river's boiling rapids – that in its own modest way puts to shame what Hollywood does with all its behemoth budgets and special effects.
But what will nail audiences dead in their tracks is a final visual coda, a moment of holy ambivalence so powerful that it might just stick with you forever.
Here’s a radical thought. Perhaps Iran has the Middle East’s most artistically accomplished film culture because of censorship. Faced with strict rules about what can and cannot be shown on screen, Iranian moviemakers have to find ways to make their statements without incurring the wrath of the mullahs.
It’s the sort of challenge that might do many Hollywood directors a bit of good.
Other films in the series “Middle Eastern Voices”
This film series complements the exhibit Echoes: Islamic Art & Contemporary Artists on display through April 27, 2014, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- November 2: Lemon Tree (2008) Not Rated
- November 9: Incendies (2010) Rated R
- November 16: Persepolis (2007) Rated PG-13
- November 23: The Color of Paradise (1999) Rated PG
- November 30: Where Do We Go Now? (2011) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.