God is not visible.
The Color of Paradise is written and directed by Majid Majidi, the Iranian director whose last film, The Children of Heaven, made Middle Eastern cinema appealing to a whole new generation of moviegoers. A heartwarming tale of hope in the face of poverty, The Children of Heaven told its story from a child's perspective, with a freshness and honesty that children could relate to. With The Color of Paradise, Majidi takes much the same approach-and this time, his child protagonist is a blind boy. Is it endearing, or is it too much?
After having won Best Picture at the 1999 Montreal Film Festival and the Special Jury Award plus a Special Young Jury Prize at the 1999 Gijón International Film Festival, Color of Paradise comes to face its toughest jury: the North American renting public. Yet for a film free of sex, aliens, and explosions, I predict it will be embraced with surprising ease. After all, the way has been paved with Children of Heaven, which was released recently enough to remain in our fickle memories. But the film itself is just so full of good-natured charm and warm, cinematic beauty, that it will captivate any viewer who nurtures the secret desire to see life through the eyes of a child.
Perhaps that expression needs to be modified in this case, because Mohammed, the child in question, doesn't use his eyes much. He is blind, since birth as far as we can tell. When we first meet him, he is packing to leave the School for the Blind in Tehran, to return to his home village for the summer. His father is late picking him up, and so he entertains himself by listening, feeling, and exploring the courtyard of the school. He finds a baby bird on the ground by following its chirps, and, after defending it from a (surprisingly noisy) cat, he climbs up the tree, finds the baby's nest, and reunites it with its mother.
It's a simple yet breathtaking sequence, and it prepares you for a film that is filled with mundane activities defamiliarized and made sublime. The footage of the Iranian countryside does happen to be gorgeous, but Majidi steers your attention patiently away, and makes you focus instead on the minutiae: the distant clicking of a woodpecker, the feel of a tiny feather, the dusty smell and texture of a wood-pile.
As Mohammed explores the world in and around his village, the film seems to suggest he has an intrinsic understanding, even a communication, with nature which his sighted relatives lack. He reads Braille in the pebbles of a stream and on the kernels of a stalk of grain, murmuring nonsense strings of letters as if deciphering a vast, natural code. He hasn't found it yet, but we get the impression that those around aren't trying-aren't even aware it exists.
This is particularly the case with Mohammed's father, who arrives late to collect his son because he doesn't want to take him home at all. He's a widower, and is now engaged to be married to a woman in a nearby village. Mohammed's blindness hangs on him like a badge of shame, and he spends much of the film trying to find a conscionable way to be rid of the quiet boy. Halfway through the film, he will apprentice him to a blind carpenter, over the vehement objections of Mohammed's caring grandmother.
But the plot ultimately takes a back seat to the sounds and sights that Majidi has captured for us. As a DVD, Color of Paradise offers a decent transfer, with digitally mastered audio and anamorphic video. The widescreen is essential for a film with so much rich landscape detail; and the colors are particularly lush and varied throughout. The transfer is not the best, however; there is a fair amount of grain detectable when the film changes reels, and I think I noticed shimmering in the background of a few shots, although it may just have been the wind moving through the trees.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film relates its story, and the nature of the relationships in Mohammed's family, more through expressions and gestures than through dialogue. This is interesting, because it means that, while we identify with Mohammed and see the world from his perspective, we are also privy to all sorts of information that he wouldn't have, being unable to see, for example, the subtle remorse in his father's eyes as he leads him to the carpenter's shop. It's a strange double standard. It's very hard to make a film from a child's perspective, especially a blind child's; and Majidi, after establishing Mohammed as our way into this world, cheats throughout the film and gives us more information than we should have.
Speaking of Mohammed's father, he also sends mixed messages to the audience. Despite his feeling of shame towards his son, we are meant to sympathize with him, and there are a few scenes early on, as he goes to court his potential bride, where he's actually presented as a comic figure, a kind of sad-faced clown, or down-on-his-luck Roberto Benigni. At other times, he is haunted by a mysterious sound in the forest, and we fear for his safety and sanity. By the end, these different threads are not resolved, and the climax, which tries to reconcile father and son, still leaves a lot of aspects of his character hanging.
That said, this is still a wonderful story, and I wish Columbia Tristar had done a better job bringing it on to DVD. While the colors are rich, and the subtitles (English, French, and Spanish) are legible, there's not much else about this disc worth praising. The Farsi dialogue track is in mono, and I got the sense (from pressing up to my pitiful speakers) that the entire soundtrack is too. There is a river sequence at the film's end, and the sound editing jumps wildly from shot to shot; I'm not sure if this was the filmmakers' faults, or the fault of the disc, but either way it was very distracting.
As with most foreign-language DVDs, special features are slim to none. There is a single talent file, for director Majidi, and theatrical trailers for the film as well as for The King of Masks, The Emperor and the Assassin, and Not One Less. When you start the film from the main menu, it plays without subtitles, and you cannot access them from within the film.
I recognize that it is difficult to include extras with a film like this; a director's commentary or a featurette would be in Farsi, not English, and Columbia Tristar would have had to work hard to obtain deleted scenes. But if you're trying to market foreign films to a mass-market audience, you have to make them just as appealing as mainstream movies, and if that doesn't mean extras, then it should at least mean a worthwhile transfer. This disc will appeal to fans of Children of Heaven and lovers of foreign cinema in general, and hopefully will find a wider audience, but if it does, it will be in spite of Columbia Tristar, not because of them.
Director Majidi is cleared of all charges, and encouraged to continue his explorations into Iranian society, and the world of youth. Columbia Tristar is convicted of the age-old crime of undervaluing its foreign titles, and sentenced to further work in this area, until they get it right.
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