A long take on an experienced shoemaker's hands repairing a small rose-colored leather shoe opens Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye aseman) before pulling back to show 9-year old Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) hand over a few coins to pay for the service. Ali then visits a curbside fruit and vegetable stand to pick up some small potatoes for the family meal, only to lose his sister's shoes—a disaster since his parents are eking out a meager existence in Tehran and can't afford to replace them.
Ali is desperate. He knows how precious those shoes are to his seven-year-old sister, Zahra (Bahare Seddigi), and both realize that revealing the loss would upset their financially strapped parents. So there's the basic plot—plain and simple. It may be hard to imagine a filmmaker making such a premise last for ninety minutes, but Majidi succeeds spectacularly with a work that profoundly expresses dogged determination, great compassion, and basic familial love. And all done without special effects and big name actors!
Carrying the film without any other credits to their names, the two child actors truly care for each other and give the film rare intimate insights into Iranian daily life. Heartbroken at the loss of her shoes, Zahra sheds honest tears and worries about what she can wear to school the next day. She and Ali furiously pass notes back and forth under their parents' noses, until a workable solution is agreed upon: The two siblings share Ali's tennis shoes since they attend school in separate shifts, setting up natural dramatic device for the narrative.
Of course complications arise—Zahra's morning session runs late, or her brother's tennis shoe slips off her tiny foot into the city sewer system. Meanwhile, beagle-eyed Ali searches for ways to get his little sister a new pair of shoes by earning some extra money before seeing the ideal solution: Third place in a foot race offers a free pair of shoes and should be no problem, since he feels he is the fastest nine-year-old in Tehran.
Even if you find the lost shoes device difficult to swallow, the children's sincerity and warmth shine through brilliantly, and introduces basic Iranian family values. Unlike many American children, they are quietly respectful of adults, while retaining their inner dignity. Witness young Ali politely raising his hand to speak to his elders at the school even in one-on-one conversations, yet he's also quite adamant about entering the foot race when a teacher tells him that it's too late. Both children go to extremes to cause no worries for their parents, especially their very stern father.
Both Ali and Zahra personify the American title, Children of Heaven, through sincere sweetness that doesn't come across as acting at all. This naturalness makes Majidi's visual poem work so splendidly—that and the intimate cinematography that captures the children's reactions at close range. Their characters shine through in simple ordinary daily life in layered vignettes that completely charm the audience and warm the heart of everyone not totally addicted to the quick fix of mainstream multiplex releases that methodically numb the senses.
As he does with the blind boy in Color of Paradise, Majidi unpretentiously reveals character through the small gestures of children in another poignantly constructed Iranian family portrait. Majidi must be wonderful with children himself—how else has he been able to get such performances from non-acting children in these two films? Children this good in America would come across as either smug or falsely saccharin, but not so here.
In essence, Children of Heaven serves as a heart warming meditation about real goodness in humanity—helping balance the negative prejudices that most Americans project towards Iranians. Recently released on DVD, this is definitely worth a rental and can work as a suitable family film.