After a critical misfire with the moralistic melodrama “The Weeping Willow,” Iran’s only Oscar-nominated director, Majid Majidi (“Children of Heaven”), returns to dramatic territory he effectively mined in earlier works in “The Song of Sparrows.” Using amateur actors, this deeply humanistic story set among his society’s underprivileged explores how capitalism and technology corrupt man, making him lose spiritual purity and all-important connections to family, friends and nature. Beautifully crafted, often sentimental, sometimes humorous pic may feel dramatically thin to some, but should enjoy commercial success domestically and appeal to niche distribs in territories where helmer reps a known quantity.
Protag Karim (Reza Naji) enjoys his work as chief ostrich wrangler at a rural ranch west of Tehran. Naturalistically shot scenes of his charges — inherently cinematic creatures — moving through imposing open landscapes provide memorable contrast with ugly, crowded cityscapes later on.
Karim lives with wife Narges (Maryam Akbari), two daughters and a young son in a small village. Like their neighbors, they share when they have plenty and lend a helping hand where needed. When an ostrich escapes, Karim tries desperately to find it. Spectacular shots of him on a mountaintop, covered in an ostrich hide and manipulating a wooden bird’s head and neck in a kind of mating dance, are echoed at pic’s end with the real thing.
Fired from his job, Karim travels to the city in hopes of replacing his eldest daughter’s broken hearing aid. There, he’s mistaken for a motorcycle taxi driver and begins to transport businessmen (all shouting into cell phones) and consumer products through heavy traffic.
The passengers and places he encounters start to transform his generous, honest nature, much to his wife’s distress. After Karim suffers an accident that leaves him unable to work, his sense of faith and purpose is ultimately restored.
Rounding out Karim’s simple story and repping the innocence of childhood, a quixotic subplot — in which local boys try to clear a sludge-filled water storage area to breed fish — yields some strong visuals and too-obvious sentiment.
As usual with Majidi, lyrical lensing (here by Tooraj Mansoouri, who delivers some stunning aerial shots) and strong production design (from Asghar Nezhad-Imani) convey more character info than the dialogue does. Contributions from longtime editor Hassan Hassandoust and sound recordist Yadollah Najafi also underscore the turmoil of the modern world.
Grammy-nommed composer and musician Hossein Alizadeh, a master tar and setar player, provides the haunting score.