Friday, July 8, 2011

Neglected Gems #4: Baran (2001)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast) acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Co-winner of the grand prize at the Montreal World Film Festival, Baran marked a stylistic leap forward for Iranian director Majid Majidi. It was also a less angry film than his previous two movies, Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise, both of which had also won the top prize in Montreal. Those films were heavier--and cruder--than Baran, which is, finally, a sweet story of unconsummated love.

Baran, which also means rain in Farsi, is the name of a young Afghan woman (Zahra Bahrami) who has disguised herself as a man in order to secure employment on a construction site after her father is injured and unable to work. Latif (Hossein Abedini), a lonely Iranian who has the cushiest job on the site as the tea pourer, at first resents the young man, Rahmat, who ends up displacing him in that position. But when he accidentally discovers her true sex, he falls madly in love with her. When she is forced to leave work, along with all the other illegally employed Afghans, he sets out to track her down.

The first third of Baran is played for laughs, with all sorts of slapstick-inspired squabbles among the employees of Memar (Mohammad Amir Naji), the Iranian who runs the site and admits to hiring the Afghans because they work harder for less money than his native-born crew. But Baran is less concerned with the plight of illegal Afghans in Iran than it is with the tale of two young people slowly beginning to find each other, and that emphasis is what makes the movie come alive. The tentative way Latif approaches Baran and what eventually happens to the pair is beautifully rendered and subtly laid out; Majidi's direction has never been smoother or more confident. If his other movies tried to force tears out of the audience, Baran earns them.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

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