Majid Majidi’s Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven is the story of two siblings, Ali and Zahra, who end up sharing a pair of tattered sneakers through school to help their parents in a financially strained period. But as is the case with most good children movies, Children of Heaven is equally enjoyable for adults as well. In fact, even though the film looks at everything through the innocent eyes of children, Majid Majidi is able to provide a very nuanced perspective of the Iranian landscape.
Eight-year-old Ali and his younger sister Zahra are used to taking up much more responsibility than their age warrants. Their life takes a turn for the worse when Ali loses — through no real fault of his own — Zahra’s recently repaired pink mary-janes. Rather than facing a parental thrashing and further straining the family’s exhausted resources, the two decide to secretly meet every day at a middle point and exchange Ali’s sneakers. But hardly does that prove to be a solution. While the shoes do not fit Zahra correctly, Ali, an otherwise exemplary student, is now perpetually late for his afternoon school.
In Children of Heaven, Majidi’s strength lies in the silent moments of the film. He is not only able to give a realistic portrayal of Iran’s lower middle classes with his profound lens but he also emphasises the fact that even small incidents like losing a pair of shoes can hold much more importance in one’s life than expected. The 90 minutes long film is full of scenes where Zahra is simply staring at the shoes of the other girls in her school and these simple shots are enough to convey the kind of embarrassment she feels at having to wear her brother’s sneakers.
Majidi presents the adversities of this Iranian family with a very casual tone and yet he is able to capture every little detail that defines their life. While in one scene, Ali is made to pick from less desirable potatoes for his family, in another one, Ali’s mother can be seen carefully unraveling a sweater to be knitted into something else. There are also some repetitive shots of Ali and Zahra frantically running through their neighbourhood’s lanes to exchange their shoes in between school as well and even though their basic aesthetic is the same, they are done very differently each time.
Needless to say, it takes a great deal of effort to exact performances out of non-actors like the child leads in Children of Heaven, Amir Farrokh Hashemian and Bahare Seddiqi. But Majidi excels at that too. Through his realistic approach, he is able to capture the true emotions of these children. In a previous interview, Majidi reveals, “We used hidden cameras to capture the presence of real life. Of course, there were some loose-ends and mistakes, but they enhanced the realistic performances of the actors. The cameras were also hidden from the key actors, again adding to the natural feel. It actually made filming more difficult and involved, hiding the camera and crew, but the results were much more relaxed performances.”
One scene that especially stands out in the film is the one where Ali’s devout yet hapless father takes Ali to an uptown neighborhood where he plans to make money by offering gardening services door-to-door. There, the two are often shunned away by people despite no fault of their own. And on their journey back home, the way Ali’s father is all hopeful about his future is heart-touching. But much like the film altogether, at the end of this scene too, Majidi leaves us frustrated and thinking. But Children of Heaven is all about finding that silver lining. It is all about recounting how life is sweet despite the various adversities.