Majid Majidi is a long way from home in “Beyond the Clouds,” a socially conscious underworld melodrama that sees the veteran Iranian humanist taking to the slums of Mumbai with a hint of Bollywood swagger. It’s a commendable departure, even if you can sense the helmer struggling to get the lay of the land at certain intersections in this heartfelt tale of an impoverished brother and sister seeking roundabout justice when she’s imprisoned for attempted murder.
What this brightly painted film lacks in streetwise authenticity, however, is balanced by its righteous strength of feeling: it’s finally the Tehran-based filmmaker’s keen compassion for society’s neglected underclasses that survives the trip across Asia intact. Festival play, following first showings in London and Busan, should run far and wide; the cross-cultural perspective and straight-ahead storytelling style of “Beyond the Clouds” broaden its distribution prospects. (Though that floaty, not-especially-evocative title risks confusion with the 1995 Antonioni-Wenders collaboration of the same name, Majidi’s film isn’t playing in quite the same arthouse ballpark.)
Majidi overreached with his last feature, 2015’s long, lavishly mounted but lead-footed religious epic “Muhammad: The Messenger of God,” which got minimal exposure despite its ambitious remit. Notwithstanding the change of scenery, “Beyond the Clouds” returns him to the more intimate, earthly scale and subject matter that served him well in such films as “Baran” and the Oscar-nominated “Children of Heaven.” Majidi has long traded in a blend of social realism and outright sentimentality, and he’s back to that formula here, even if the infusion of stray elements from popular Indian cinema — including one short, out-of-the-blue dance number — jumbles the tone a bit.
One feature retained from “Muhammad” in Majidi’s hard career reset, meanwhile, is his collaboration with Oscar-winning Indian composer A.R. Rahman, whose maximalist score practically demands its own directorial credit. Its clutter of syrupy, emotionally leading motifs isn’t exactly congruous with the film’s attempts at rough-edged human tragedy, though you can hardly fail to hear echoes of “Slumdog Millionaire” in its more high-energy passages — notably in an antsy opening sequence of urban scene-setting, as young protagonist Amir (newcomer Ishaan Khattar) is introduced in the process of a drug deal, lithely weaving and hitching and jay-running his way across a traffic-clogged Mumbai as he makes multiple drops and pickups. An ebullient interlude of car-top dancing is disrupted by a police bust and ensuing chase, before he finally finds shelter in the laundry where his estranged older sister Tara (Malavika Monahan) works.
Nothing else in “Beyond the Clouds” matches this sequence for sustained brio and momentum, though Majidi and leading Bollywood cinematographer Anil Mehta (“Lagaan”) go on to throw a striking few expressionist flourishes into the mix, with cinematic shadow-play a recurring device. In one such silhouetted scene, set amid drying, billowing bedsheets, Tara’s superior Akshi (Goutam Ghose) attempts to rape her, believing her indebted to him after he helps cover for Amir. With a spatter of scarlet across ivory cotton, she strikes his head with a stone in self-defense; he narrowly survives and is hospitalized, while she’s carted off without delay to a destitute women’s prison.
With Tara facing life behind bars unless Akshi himself admits fault, it’s left to Amir to draw the truth out of the now speech-impaired rapist. The drug dealer’s own redemptive arc, meanwhile, comes with acts of initially reluctant charity to Akshi’s now-homeless family. The future-bearing role of children, as in much of the director’s work, is heavily emphasized here; Tara likewise befriends the beaming-against-the-odds daughter of a fellow inmate. Majidi and co-writer Mehran Kashadi present all their characters as jointly victimized by systemic poverty in India, though the subjugation of women under these conditions comes in for particular censure.
Majidi’s young leads lack finesse, but not emotive conviction, which suits the film’s purposes just fine; egged along by that score, it’s mostly all-caps protest cinema, getting its worthwhile message unambiguously across. There are more clashing tones than we’ve come to expect here from the director, who sometimes tries out floridly romanticism, poetic realism and tough genre posing in the space of a single scene — a change is as good as a rest, goes the old proverb, but relocating to India has made Majidi a more restless filmmaker than we might ever have guessed.