Miramax is a lot like Disney—their corporate clout often makes them the bullies of film distributorship and lands them lots of unfavorable publicity; however, their original intentions are well meaning. Without Miramax many quality foreign and independently produced would never screen in the U.S., so I can overlook their "evil empire" when they bring such things as Baran to American shores. Unfortunately, the film never reached the big screen in my part of the country, but is available on DVD. With current interest in the Middle East, Majid Majidi's works should get more playing time, and this one is well worth its 96 minutes.
Although not as well known in arthouse circles as innovator Abbas Kiarostami, Majidi fashions poignantly beautiful films about Iranian people in their natural setting. His previous two films—Color of Paradise and Children of Heaven—both revolve around children and family relationships while Baran centers on a young man just entering the working world. All simple stories that unfold naturally with many non-actors, but much more accessible to western audiences than Kiarostami, who often has American audience shaking their heads trying to understand his point of view shots. Majidi leaves audiences with lighter hearts and a sense that they've become acquainted with a different culture and lifestyle.
In Baran, Majidi illuminates the harsh realities of Afghani life through the eyes of 17-year old Lateef (Hossein Abedini), a good-hearted tea server for Memar's (Mohamma Amir Naji) construction crew. Civil wars in Afghanistan that broke out after the guerilla war with the Soviet and the extreme poverty of the region have caused many Afghans to cross the Iranian border to eke out a better life despite many restrictions against them. Similar to the Mexican situation in California and the Southwest, Afghan workers toil harder for far less wages and are greatly desirable for construction jobs, and Memar is wise to this. The illegally hired Afghan refugees don't complain about lugging 50 lb. plaster bags up long flights of stairs. However, they constantly have to be ready to hide whenever Memar spots the inspector coming to the site. If he's caught, he'd be heavily fined and forced to let them all go, so it's to all their benefits to keep their system going, like a Steinbeck world of symbiotic communal survival.
Majidi incorporates touches of humanity and humor throughout. Memar's gruff exterior is quickly exposed—he treats his workers with respect and really has a hard time denying special favors. When a severe accident injures one of his long time refugee workers, he readily agrees to allowing the injured man's “son,” Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami), to work on the crew to help make up for lost family wages. It soon becomes apparent that Rahmat can't handle heavy labor, so before long Rahmat and Lateef switch jobs.
Instantly Rahmat dazzles with tea fit for the gods, a huge upgrade from the "dishwater" that Lateef had been serving. Of course, Lateef initially is ticked off to be working manual labor while the neophyte takes over his cushy duties, but he soon discovers why the silent Rahmat is completely at home in the kitchen, and a love story begins. Although this all sounds quite like an American romantic comedy, this Iranian version comes across uniquely—love is expressed in far different terms, and much is left to silence, so do not expect any huge gushes of outward expression and passionate embraces. Such an outburst would shock the system of any culture that compels a woman to cover her face with a burqa if a man gazes too intently.
Lateef forms the likeable center of Baran. The playful youth initially resents the Afghan workers that are paid higher wages than he, but when he falls in love with Rahmat his whole demeanor changes. Although often framed independently, Majidi emphasizes his isolation during his obsessive pursuit—he's often photographed lost in reverie while fellow workers carry on or hiding behind objects as he gazes from afar. Through his new found love/infatuation he gains more insight into Afghani life, so Majidi chronicles their plight in sympathetic tones without making overt political statements. That he does so with rich, vibrant photography that takes full advantage of the Iranian sun and the shadows created on the construction site, is an added bonus.
Majidi doesn't perplex your creative senses like Kiarostami, but he crafts a wonderfully warm human drama that remains vividly in memory long after viewing. Characteristically he effectively uses many untrained actors that lend more authenticity to the scenario, and the Tehran construction site contrasts well with the bird chirping nature-filled world of the impoverished Afghan refugees. In a chaotic world with many misapprehensions about the humanity from that area of the planet, Baran serves as a healthy introduction to Iranian cinema, as it puts a very human face on people that most Americans only experience as cold news stories. By filling in the familiar romantic comedy structure with regional details, it's a small step towards more universal feeling—a healing balm for perplexing times.