Mysteriously hooded females aside, everything about The White Balloon—its gently whining child protagonist, its simple, 85-minute cross-section of a few blocks of Tehran, Iran—begs a comparison the daily culture, sociology, and atmosphere of Anytown, U.S.A. This seems especially pertinent, since the specter of recent—and current—world events has blocked for many the opportunity to witness an unbiased portrait of Islamic culture. I doubt director Jafar Panahi would claim that his film offers such a portrait, even though its real-time narrative, its use of fresh-faced non-actors, and its documentary feel give it full credentials to show at least a daily-life slice of the sort of people who are being flattened under homogenous ideologies and the military embodiment of those ideologies as we speak. As it turns out, “civilian casualties” look a lot like us.
Razieh, the film's seven-year-old protagonist, wants a new goldfish for her family's New Year celebration and whines unceasingly about it. She bribes her older brother Ali, who just returned from an errand for their surly father, to ask their mother for permission to buy the goldfish in a shop a few blocks away. Mom reluctantly says yes, and Razieh runs off, but like most little girls, she travels with her eyes, mouth, and ears unabashedly open and gets easily distracted, eventually losing her money twice. Most of the film shows her efforts to get the money back, and her run-ins with a snake-charming troupe, a tailor, and a teenaged balloon salesman along the way. Where other films might elaborate, The White Balloon pulls back, or focuses inward: Razieh's father is never shown onscreen; we hear an occasional update on the approaching New Year from a radio we never see; and, most importantly, the narrative exists completely in real time and allows the minutes to tick by while Razieh decides how next to approach her money problem. As a result, time becomes the sum total of a few bills being stolen from a child’s hand, returned to a child’s hand and dropped from a child’s hand, and this stretching, in direct contrast with today’s flash-cut compression, softens perspective and allows for patient appreciation of the film's setting, characterization, and sometimes-oblique, sometimes-beautiful camerawork. Those who find subtitles distracting might wonder if younger children would be able to follow along, but the film's narrative drive is so simple and pictorial that it easily transcends language boundaries. Everything considered, The White Balloon is edifying for adults and children alike.