Baran, another very fine movie from Iranian master Majid Majidi [see reviews of his Color of Paradise and The Song of the Sparrows ] informs us in his usual beautiful, well paced way of lives we know little or nothing at all, combined with emotions and relations we know bone deep. Baran takes us to the Iranian border with Afghanistan where over 1 million refugees fled from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and wars following wars following wars. As everywhere, the plight of refugees is cruel. Removed from their own countries, often from remote rural areas which once constituted their entire world, living in squalid, hastily put together camps without plumbing, electricity or the tools or sense of belonging to use them, they seek work where they find it, at wages below the prevailing native norm.
Much of Baran takes place on a building site where men build and destroy cinder-block and mortar walls in the most appalling safety conditions you can imagine. I’ve been on Mexican building sites. They are absolutely Inspection Ready compared to this one. Many of the workers are Afghan refugees; all men and all illegal. When one of them falls from the unguarded second floor and shatters his foot not only is his family in extreme difficulty but the building inspectors begin to descend on the Iranian contractor doing the work.
“Afghans! Afghans run! the shout is taken up and half the workforce clears out — just as Migra raids in Southern California.
A work partner of the disabled Afghani brings his “son,” Rahmat to take his place, promising to watch over him. The boy soon shows himself as too weak and clumsy to carry sacks of cement up and down make-shift stairways, or wield a sledge hammer. He is swapped with a tall young Iranian boy, Lateef, who had been doing the kitchen duties and resents his promotion to much harder work. He begins to spy on and taunt Rahmat until he discovers what we have suspected from the beginning. Rahmat is a young girl.
The wonderful central theme is Lateef’s increasing care for her, protecting her while trying to live within the customs of men and women apart, his own love-born shyness, and not wanting to jeopardize her work, and therefore nearness to him. He goes to increasing lengths to help her, demanding his back wages from the brusque but kind hearted contractor, and selling his identity card on the black market. Each time the money does not work as he intended. He is as far as ever from her though eventually she recognizes him, and his intentions.
The ending is bitter sweet as the last gift of money doesn’t help the crippled father stay in Iran but to take the family back to Afghanistan. The parting scene between the two is very compelling stuff. The family is boarding a rickety pickup truck in the driving rain when the two finally exchange their recognition of love. The best best Cinderella moment I’ve ever seen in life or a movie takes place and then, water splashing into her footprint, the truck moves off. She is gazing out through a netted niqab at him. He is smiles at footprint and the water. Water thrown at departing friends in Iran is a promise of return.
As is typical with Majidi the colors are saturated and rich. Here, instead of flowers, and streams — though there is one river of particular and harrowing importance– he brings us into the construction site, with billowing gray dust, pouring rain, ruined barrels of steaming liquids, fires to heat the material, the slop of mortar. It is very much a Dantesque scene, with great snow covered mountains in the background. Steam coming from the workers mouths and nostrils, eagerly reaching semi-gloved fingers for the hot tea served all around.
I’ve never seen a movie so bound to workers lives as Baran; the constant, brutal physical labor, the fear of losing the job, the intimidating shouts and threats of the contractor. Even away from this job site work is hard and dangerous. Women, in full Afghan dress, pull stones and branches from a rushing river — again no safety equipment. Them major theme of fierce sexual separation and how it is both “natural” and deformative runs the length of the movie. The girl’s determination to break that wall as best she can to help her family; the Iranian suitor stepping outside his own walls to answer the mystery of his heart.
Our view of immigrants up against the larger culture, the disdain for them, their language and customs from the dominant one will ring familiar to all who pay attention to life here in the United States– but in the movie it is between people we would hardly have thought of in such a context. And of course, we are reminded, mostly as background but also in one wrenching scene, of the war and the wars that continue to take lives of young people, and leave their families with gaping holes.
And through this, a dawning love softens a crazy kid, puts him into his very best clothes to make an impression and drives him towards his loved one, despised immigrant or not. This, he understands in the pouring rain, is the love I will have in my life.
Every film of Majid Majidi’s is so wonderfully wrought I would go hours out of my way to see anything with his name on it, no title or plot needed, confident I would come away, once again, stirred by the shimmering colors of his human palate.