Majid Majidi’s The Children of Heaven is quite nearly a perfect film, and at least a perfect introduction to what may be some intimidating classifications; considering our preconceptions regarding foreign film, art film, and jargon like “neo-realism,” Majidi’s work is not only surprisingly accessible, but pretty unequivocally delightful. Much of its charm has to do with the two beautiful children at the story’s center and the corresponding innocence and simplicity of the story: when Ali loses his sister Zahra’s shoes, the two have to share one pair without their parents knowing until Ali can come up with a solution.
So, let’s allay fears and dispel stereotypes. As an international film, Children is neither dark nor obscure, but a bright window into a place and a lifestyle, specifically the working-class, family-filled neighborhoods of south Tehran—the poverty or exotica of which may strike first, but feel gradually less foreign as we come to know the people and place. The subtitles are not difficult, and the straight-ahead narrative style makes the story easy enough to follow even without subtitles. That is to say, most of the story is told in the wordless picture, an element borrowed from the art house tradition. Children is not experimental or unintelligible, but is consistently picturesque and effectively communicative in its visuals—of dusty alleyways juxtaposed with rich gardens, of close living quarters, of Zahra’s earnest face—and unafraid of a little silence. And its classification as a neo-realist film refers to similarly effective and enjoyable qualities. Children is filmed not in studios or on sets, but in the streets, homes, markets, mosques, and schools of the city, lending a particularly vibrant authenticity. As in DiSica’s Bicycle Thieves, or the more recent Not One Less by Zhang Yimou, Majidi draws from that real world for his characters—none of the actors are professional, and the freshness and sincerity of these ordinary people on camera can be pretty staggering, especially the children (for a more thorough treatment of neo-realism see the review for Not One Less).
Guileless, honest, apolitical, sweet, and surprisingly substantial, Chidlren of Heaven is an ideal family film, and one that successfully informs and uplifts.