A broken cassette player becomes the object of a comic struggle between two groups of kids in the old Iranian city of Yazd in Ali Zamani Esmati’s pleasant debut feature “Narrow Alleys.” Dated, frequently obvious pic feels like a throwback to the ’90s, when Iranian films gave children’s tales humanistic charm and depth (“The White Balloon,” “Where is the Friend’s House?”). International children’s fests are natural oases, but wider arthouse prospects appear restricted to upscale Euro markets.
“Narrow Alleys” can be read as a tribute to a fable-like tradition of storytelling that stretches as far back as “The Red Balloon” and likely reached a popular zenith with B.O. hit “Children of Heaven.” Pic hardly gives the form new slants, though, and even the sub-80 minute length is something of a stretch.
Little Parisa (Parisa Poorghasemi) cherishes her family’s old tape player as the only medium to hear recordings of her late father singing of traditional folksongs. More solemnly, the player is used to broadcast daily prayers at the local mosque. Worn-out wiring has made it nearly impossible to listen to, and Parisa wants it fixed.
Trying to recruit neighboring boy Meisam (Meisam Jahankhah) to help her only gets Parisa in trouble, as the player ends up snatched by urchins Mohammad (Seyed Mohammad Hosseini) and Reza (Seyed Reza Hosseini). Esmati (who also edited) tracks Parisa and Meisam on one end, and Mohammad and Reza on the other, symbolic as kids of the poor and the poorest who vie for some modest advantage over the rickety gadget.
Once the script reveals the lads eke out a living by recycling junk by handcart, and could use the cash from selling the player to buy a new cart, sympathies grow more complicated. Esmati’s cleverest idea is to allow the situation to grow more problematic, as Mohammad feels remorseful and tries to reclaim the player and perhaps win Parisa’s heart in the process.
The protracted tussles among the boys leaves the pic to play out a string of incidents at the expense of character development. Jahankhah grabs laughs when trying to negotiate with his infirm grandmother to take her own tape player. But while such crowd-pleasing tactics are modestly entertaining, they merely skirt the surface of the film’s story.Alleys — the common Iranian term for neighborhood back streets — are indeed narrow in Esmati’s hometown of Yazd, and he and lenser Masoud Salami film them as little stages for action that sometimes verge on slapstick. Hints of fun amid everyday poverty (including a lovely interlude where boys play on a sand dune) further soften the film’s barely detectable social critique.