Provost's Film Series
March 19, 2002
The Child's World
Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise is a sparse story, a modern fairy tale about a blind boy and his selfish father. Like all good fairy tales, The Color of Paradise becomes a fable about human fears and virtues, a story for adults as well as children. "In my films," Majidi observes, "I am always searching for the purest feelings and most beautiful gifts, such as kindness. In this respect, no other world is more simple, pure and magnificent than a child's world. I take the child's world seriously because it is closer to reality."
The Emergence of Iranian Cinema
With two films—The Children of Heaven (1998) and The Color of Paradise (2000)— Majidi became the first Iranian director to capture widespread popular attention in the West. Following the wake of September 11, his film Baran (2001) drew special notice for its portrait of Afghani refugees living within Iran. His work builds on the renaissance of Iranian film that followed the 1979 Islamic revolution. That rebellion toppled the Shah of Iran, a long-term American ally, and brought the Islamic fundamentalists into power. Even as the government of Iran was attempting to purge the nation of Western influences and to restore a vision of pre-modern Islamic culture, Iranian filmmakers began to win praise from the West’s most progressive film critics. Many of the Iranian filmmakers from the 1980s endorsed an Islamic worldview, and they sought to shed the commercial style and materialistic sheen often associated with Western culture. By contrast, they portrayed the poverty of village life and expressed a new hope in rural spirituality.
As the first phase of enthusiasm after the 1979 revolution gave way to internal dissent and rivalries within the Islamic world, many of the leading Iranian filmmakers distanced themselves from religious fundamentalism, but they continued to make subtle and austere films aimed at arthouse elites and intellectuals. Several Iranian films about children—such as Naderi’s The Runner, Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger, and Makhamlbaf’s The Silence—have won acclaim from the international film community for their poetry and innovation. One Iranian, Abbas Kiarostami, is widely counted among the greatest film directors of the contemporary world, though his open-ended plots and deliberate style have not caught on with American viewers.
Majidi and the West
Majidi stands on the shoulders of his Iranian forerunners, but unlike many of them he has remained loyal to his Islamic faith and made films for popular audiences in both East and West. He is, therefore, an ironic figure—a dedicated Islamic believer who has embraced several techniques of Western pop culture. (Children of Heaven, released in 1998, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.) In his review of The Color of Paradise, Michael Atkinson notes that "we'd be foolish to assume that Iranian filmmakers aren't eyeing the American marketplace and trying their best to be Kiarostamian, and here Majidi does something of a grand-slam job of balancing the two desires." As Majidi notes, "Iran is an old country with a significant cultural history . . . If one pays attention to the human being and to human values whether they are related to the Iranian culture or another, one ends up being unaware of the borders. . . . The language of Art can facilitate bringing people together toward the conscience of a common humanity, despite differences in races, cultures, nationality. I think Iranian cinema has found this language."
For all of its popular influences, however, The Color of Paradise is more overtly religious than most contemporary films. It opens with the dedication “To the Glory of God.” It looks for God everywhere in nature—in the visual splendor of wind-swept grasses and vibrant flowers. In the original Farsi language, the title of the film literally means the "Color of God."
The religious themes in the film are also related to the prevailing motif of blindness. Actually, The Color of Paradise attempts to do something quite incongruous—to use the visual medium of film to convey how a blind person perceives the world. Majidi tries to help us “see” the world through the experience of a blind child. In the story, a widower is anxious to marry a young woman, but he fears that his blind son will be an impediment to securing the affections of the woman and her family. He tries to keep his son out of the way—at school, among relatives, as an apprentice to a blind woodworker. For the lead role in the film, Majidi avoided professional actors and chose Mashen Ramezami, a child he had observed at a school for the blind. The child "reads" the river sand like Braille and listens to the "color" in the sounds around him. Throughout the tale Majidi also treats blindness as metaphorical; certain characters appear to be morally blind even as the blind child seems blessed with special insight. The blindness theme echoes the Qu'ran's claim that none of us can actually see God. Is it the blind child, after all, who envisions God most fully in his imagination?
Abraham and Ambiguities
When discussing the film, Godfrey Cheshire of the New York Press notes that Iranian cinema quite often evokes Abraham’s story from Genesis. Throughout the world Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, perhaps the most important holiday on the Islamic calendar, the day commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God. According to Cheshire, Majidi, like most Iranians, can be amused and troubled that the term Judeo-Christian “lops off a tripartite monotheistic tradition that they call ‘Abrahamian,’” so his film, like other Iranian movies, deliberately sets out to tell an Islamic version of the Abraham and Isaac story. Just as in the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, the father in The Color of Paradise appears willing to sacrifice his son, though in his case the motive is self-interest and freedom rather than allegiance to God's will. But, even as God in Genesis sends a ram as a sign of his covenant, The Color of Paradise is full of natural signs (most missed by the father) intended as prompts for moral action. With these echoes of the story of Abraham, Majidi express a spiritual vision that can be appreciated by others outside his faith.
Most everyone who sees the film is left pondering the ambiguities and meaning of the film's final image. Some see it as literal event. Others perceive it as allegorical, a moral attached to the end of the tale. Yet another perspective is that the scene should be understood psychologically, perhaps as a subconscious experience. In some respects all interpretations are possible at once. There are several images in the scene—the gray colors of the landscape, the flight of birds, and the play of light—that confront the viewer with the stark reality of death, even as they hint at the possibility that we have entered a dream or reached the portals of paradise.