Children of Heaven is pretty shocking in its depiction of poverty in modern-day Tehran. Well, “modern-day”: for the first few dozens of minutes in the movie, you might as well be watching a story from centuries ago. The only aspect of contemporary life visible in the frame is a small, old-fashioned TV set; and a radio transistor, like those commonly used 50 years ago, perhaps. Only later in the movie, when the father and son, riding a bicycle, visit “downtown, modern” Tehran, does one clearly realize that the movie is, in fact, fully taking place in the present day, although it certainly doesn’t look like it to a Western viewer.
I may be naive, but somehow one would expect a “religious state” to be better capable of taking care of its citizens, so that such extremes of poverty can be avoided. I mean, to shoot a movie in 1997 showing a pair of sneakers as the most precious imaginable possession is just sad. The illusion must be similar to what one used to expect from Communist countries – that they would eliminate sharp class divides within society. That’s what Communists used to preach, in theory – but in practice, they failed miserably. Does Iran as a religious society wish to remove such sharp divides? I have no idea, but it was disappointing to see so clearly in the movie that they apparently still exist in Iran today.
After I finished watching the movie, I wasn’t entirely satisfied. Basically, everything turned out right, as it typically does in fairy-tales. OK, but it also lends a “phony” aspect to the movie: the movie pretty much tells the viewers, “Ah, it’s not really as bad as it all initially seems. Just lay back and enjoy the movie – everything will sort itself out eventually, so there’s no reason to get upset. You viewers can go ahead and live your comfortable lives just like before, and you can forget about everything you saw in this movie because, see, these folks are eventually capable of resolving all their problems by themselves.”
But is that true in real life? And is it a hallmark of a cinematic masterpiece to make viewers comfortable? To be honest, I’d rather expect the opposite effect from an outstanding work of art. Children of Heaven appears to be soothing the viewers’ bad conscience: “We don’t really care about all the terrible struggles these poor folks experience on a daily basis, but that’s OK, because they can sort it all out by themselves at the end of the day.”
There’s a fairytale-like atmosphere around Children of Heaven; the adults in this world appear threatening, but eventually, as it turns out, most are just kind-hearted folks. In the midst of the harshest conditions, people are, in their depth, mostly good. That’s a nice, heart-warming theory, but is reality quite as simple? The movie makes it seem too simple and allows the viewers to conclude that no measures need to be undertaken to help those around the world who are currently suffering. That’s a less elating, and one might almost say – a kitschy aspect of the movie: “The good will prevail, it always does, so why should I worry or do anything about bad things that exist in this world?”
There’s another kitschy aspect in Children of Heaven, as there often is with children’s movies: the two children in the lead roles are just too cute. What if the two kids were ugly? Would there still be a movie?
Finally, the movie was a bit frightening to watch from a European perspective. I find even “liberal” European schools too suffocating for a free-thinking spirit, but that’s nothing compared to how Iranian schools are depicted in Children of Heaven. One is reminded of army barracks rather than an educational institution. The “uniforms” worn by everyone except males in the movie (headwear by all women, the exact same clothing by all school kids…) strengthen the “military” impression generated by the movie. Uniform clothing – uniform thinking…
Does Children of Heaven deserve its Oscar nomination? It’s a very good movie, beautifully shot and apparently realistic, showing you both sides of Tehran as if you visited it in person, but the movie’s praise is perhaps exaggerated. It’s very much a movie in the spirit of De Sica’s classic Bicycle Thieves, and it goes to the credit of Children of Heaven that one can pronounce this comparison without blushing. Still, to me, it lacks the intensity and artistry of the classic – unlike here, I never for a second mistook Bicycle Thieves for a fairy-tale while watching it.