Revisiting familiar Iranian cinematic terrain with considerable charm, Majid Majidi's third feature deploys the standard narrative device of putting plucky yet vulnerable children on a quest more urgent than their years warrant. Though his story is city-bound this time, helmer remains disarmingly focused on how tiny incidents become a big deal to small fry.

Revisiting familiar Iranian cinematic terrain with considerable charm, Majid Majidi’s third feature deploys the standard narrative device of putting plucky yet vulnerable children on a quest more urgent than their years warrant. Though his story is city-bound this time (after rural-set “Baduk” and “The Father”), helmer remains disarmingly focused on how tiny incidents become a big deal to small fry. A large-scale action climax could give this a boost toward international kidpic teleplay after fest and local theatrical runs; strong fest showings could result in limited export theatrical for this fine effort, which pulled off a hat trick at Montreal’s World Film Festival by winning the top Grand Prix of the Americas award, the audience nod as most popular film, and the Ecumenical Jury prize.

Eight-year-old Ali and his younger sister, Zahra, are accustomed to shouldering much responsibility. Beyond attending school, they must help their ailing mother and devout but hapless, under-employed father. When Ali loses — through no real fault of his own — Zahra’s freshly repaired pink shoes, it’s disastrous: She has no others. Rather than face a parental thrashing and further strain the family’s exhausted resources, Ali begs Zahra to keep mum until he can recover the shoes.

This search develops quite a bit of unlikely but cleverly handled intrigue, as said treads duly turn up — albeit on another little girl who probably needs them just as badly. There’s also the daily drama of the two siblings’ frantic sneaker exchange in an alley, a necessary relay race that habitually makes Ali late for class.

After a neat interlude wherein father and son arduously venture via bicycle to a faraway wealthy neighborhood (looking for gardening work), Ali pegs his last hopes on a citywide foot race for third- and fourth-graders. Third prize is a brand new pair of shoes, amongst more glamorous items. While this climax sounds a more conventional aud-pleasing note than prior progress, it works, particularly as Ali perversely struggles to let first- and second-placers beat him to a photo finish. A brief post-race tag returns to helmer Majidi’s more customary, disarmingly small-scale lyricism.

Much humor and suspense is wrung from incidents that would be minuscule from anything but a child’s p.o.v., many repeated until they become ingenious running gags. Though contrivance is hazarded at times, sum effect is that of warm, simple charm — something that Majidi has become highly skilled at evoking. Child actors are clearly non-pro, but create winningly serious-minded characters nevertheless. Adult thesps contribute deft support. Location use and tight editing stand out in a solid tech package.

The Children of Heaven

Iranian

Production

A Miramax release of an Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults production. Produced by Mohammad Sared Seyedzadeh. Directed, written by Majid Majidi.

Crew

Camera (color), Parviz Malekzaade; editor, Hassan Hassandoost. Reviewed at World Film Festival, Montreal (competing), Aug. 25, 1997. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Mohammad Amir Naji, Fereshte Sarabandi, Karnal Mirkarimi.
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