Love's strange magic works in Afghan epic


Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 20

A note that appears on screen at the beginning of Baran says 1.4 million refugees from Afghanistan are living in Iran. That number has probably decreased recently, but the fate of the Afghans who have fled 20 years of war and deprivation is still relevant. Our lives and theirs, separated by geographical distance, cultural differences and almost unimaginable material disparities, seem much closer now than they might have a few years ago.

But even without the grimly fortuitous topicality conferred by Sept. 11 and the Iraq war, Baran, the film from the Iranian director Majid Majidi, would be necessary viewing. Not only does it bring news of a faraway place, but it also exemplifies the power of cinema, when it focuses on the particulars of daily life, to achieve a paradoxical universality. The film plunges you into a reality that is, more often than not, difficult and sad, and then, without sentimentalizing it or denying its brutality, transforms that reality into a lyrical and celebratory vision.

Majidi's hero is a young laborer named Latif (Hossein Abedini) who fetches groceries and serves tea at a construction site where many of the laborers are Afghan emigres working illegally. After one is injured, his son arrives to take his place. Too weak to haul heavy sacks of plaster or perform other arduous tasks, the newcomer soon replaces Latif, who resents losing his relatively easy job. Before long -- though long after the audience is likely to reach the same conclusion -- he discovers that the new boy is actually a girl named Baran (Zahra Bahrami), and he commences an awkward, earnest courtship.

Majidi, whose Color of Paradise is the highest-grossing Iranian film released in the US, has a populist, romantic streak that distinguishes him from some of his more austere colleagues. At times -- especially when Latif and Baran, in alternating close-ups, exchange wordless, soulful glances, their faces lighted with an orange glow that seems to emanate from within -- he sends out a flash of sublimated sensuality that evokes old Hollywood or modern Bollywood.

His willingness to risk hokiness -- his delight, really, in portraying strong, naive emotions -- does not so much subvert the movie's realism as intensify it. Latif's impulsive, sometimes ridiculous infatuation is the stuff of romantic comedy, but Majidi uses the sweet spell of a love story to work a more complex magic.

The young man's desire to protect the honor of his beloved and his fantasy of rescuing her from her miserable circumstances (she lives with other refugees in a makeshift encampment) lead him, through the awakening of his immature, unthinking ardor, to a moral transformation. He changes before our eyes from a clownish, hotheaded boy into a noble, self-sacrificing man. His feeling for Baran precipitates the discovery that other people exist; his passion becomes compassion.

The lovely clarity of this story, which seems to have been drawn from the literature of an earlier age, is well served by the artful subtlety of the telling. Majidi prefers imagery to exposition, and his shots are as dense with meaning, and as readily accessible, as Dutch paintings.

The cavernous, half-open construction site, often shot from above, looks like a Bruegel composition: a field of dark, flat, earthy tones teeming with clusters of color and activity. Often the director follows a glowing close-up with a wide shot, and the juxtaposition of perspectives produces a powerful sense of human scale that perfectly expresses his ethical insight.

When their faces fill the screen, Latif and Baran -- and also his co-workers and her hard-hit relatives -- are universes unto themselves. Seen from afar, they are small and vulnerable, tiny bees in a vast, impersonal hive. At the beginning of Baran you are asked to contemplate numbers; leaving the theater, you are likely to be haunted by faces.