Majid Majidi’s fifth feature film, Baran (2001), shares some key characteristics with his previous outings, Father (1996), Children of Heaven (1997), and The Color of Paradise (1999). In all of them, a boy is trying to come to terms with the world, the story ends more or less disastrously on the physical plane, but there is an epiphany on a higher plane. Hoever, there is a uniquely new element to Baran: this is a story about romantic love. Making a story about love between a man and a woman is undoubtedly challenging in present-day Iran, but we should remember that this society has an enormous cultural store and sensitivity to human love. Much of our Western notions about romantic love derive from these sources.
The story is set mostly at a Tehran building construction site, the type whose construction methods and materials, using mainly bricks, cinder blocks, and plaster, offer a major opportunity for unskilled and semi-skilled employment. In a country with a usually high unemployment rate, the competition for unskilled construction jobs naturally leads to low pay scales. Complicating the situation in Iran since 1979 has been the influx of Afghan refugees following the disruptions due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing brutal civil war. By the year 2000, Iran was hosting 1.5 million desperately poor Afghans, many of whom had spent their entire lives in specially designated refugee camps. Note that to work legally in Iran, to buy things in stores, and just to get around generally, you need a shenasname, the Iranian identity card. Of course, these Afghan refugees didn’t have them and couldn’t easily find work. But construction contractors would hire the refugees, anyway, for even lower wages, which would save the contractors money, as long as they weren’t caught and fined by government inspectors. This was the situation at the building site in Baran: it had a number of Afghans there, working harder than the others and for substandard pay.
At the outset we see Lateef, an Iranian boy in his late teens, who is working at the construction site. It’s immediately clear that Lateef has an attitude problem and is something of a punk – the kind of kid who elsewhere might be a skateboard-riding troublemaker on view in your locale. Thanks to his father’s friendship with construction site manager, Memar, Lateef has the relatively soft job of providing tea and chow at the work breaks, and this gives him the chance to walk around the site during his serving periods, making wisecracks and playing the big shot. While others are working hard, he taunts them from his special perch and continues to stir up trouble. In his idle moments he likes to throw stones at pigeons.
One day one of the Afghans, Najaf, breaks his foot in a fall and has to be taken to the hospital. The following day his friend and fellow Afghan, Soltan, brings Najaf’s son, Rahmat, to the manager, hoping to find a job for him in Najaf’s absence. He explains that Najaf has a number of small children and no other means of support. Memar, who is tough but concerned for his workers, is skeptical when he looks at Rahmat’s slight build, but reluctantly gives his consent. Soon it is clear that Rahmat is not strong enough for the heavy work, and Memar decides to solve two problems at once. He assigns the food preparation job to Rahmat and orders the perpetual nuisance, Lateef, to start doing regular construction work.
Stung by his demotion, Lateef tries to make life miserable for Rahmat (he even smacks him in the face), but Rahmat suffers the malicious pranks stoically. However, one day Lateef makes an eye-popping discovery when he sees someone secretly combing long hair: Rahmat is actually a girl masquerading as boy! It turns out that the only one of Najaf’s children old enough to work is his daughter (whose name, we later learn, is "Baran", meaning “rain” in Farsi). Soon Lateef has entirely new and protective feelings for his vulnerable co-worker. But her precarious circumstances, Iranian (and Afghan) social restrictions, and Lateef's previous vengeance-driven mistreatment of her all stand in the way of any possible friendly approaches. All he can do is keep an eye out and come to her aid when he feels that she is threatened. Not long afterwards, though, the building inspectors discover the presence of the Afghans at the site, and they all get booted out. Lateef now doesn’t even know where the girl has gone, but his interest and desires to help are enflamed. He takes unpaid time off from work to find out where she is and to carry out successive self-sacrificing acts to help her.
- He manages to take out his accumulated year’s earnings from Memar and gives them to Soltan to give to Najaf. However, Soltan has his own desperate problems back in Afghanistan and disappears with all the money across the border.
- Using the rest of his money that he had been secretly squirrelling away, he buys crutches for Najaf. When he goes to deliver them to Najaf’s hut, he overhears from behind the door a grief-laden family conversation revealing that Najaf’s brother has just died in the Afghan civil war, leaving his brother’s family homeless. So Lateef leaves the crutches by the door and disappears before anyone sees him.
- With no further resources, he sells his shenasname in the black market and gives the money to Najaf, saying that it comes from Memar. He knows that Iranian custom would prevent Najaf from accepting a gift straight from his own hand.
The next day Lateef comes to help Najaf’s familly load their belongings onto a truck headed back to Afghanistan. When Baran happens to drop a basket of vegetables, he rushes to help her pick them up. As if knowing that this may be their only moment of interaction, their hands move slowly, carefully, almost touching. When finished, they exchange a momentary glance. Just that. But in this society where, in some quarters, unrelated men and women are not even expected to look each other in the eye, this is a shared moment. Baran covers her face with her burqa and walks towards the truck. When her shoe gets stuck in the mud, Lateef rushes to help her. But, again, there is no touching. The truck departs, and Lateef knows that he will never see her again. But he stares, smiling wistfully, at her last footprint in the mud, as the rain falls.
Lateef has lost all his savings and his indispensable identity card. The woman he loves has disappeared into Afghanistan and is lost forever. But he has gained something, too -- something invaluable. He is a new man and now sees the whole world differently. It is a world that was invisible to him before. And he will never look at the rainfall again in the same way.
This is a film of longing, of unfulfilled desire, and it plays without missing a beat or a note. It is very much in the tradition of Wong Kar Wai’s films, which are situated in a vastly different culture, but reflect similar, universal feelings of our highest sentiments. And like Wong Kar Wai’s films, too, there are whimsical and ironic moments that sometimes bring a smile. What sets Baran apart, however, is the exquisite artistry and subtlety of the presentation. The acting performances are uniformly good. Hossein Abedini, as Lateef, (he also had a major role in Majidi's earlier work, Father) manages the difficult journey from selfish adolescent to compassionate human being with just the right amount of exuberance. Mohammad Amir Naji, as the harried but sympathetic Memar, enlivens the proceedings with his energy and manages to embody the human soul of the construction working environment.
The cinematography and mise en scene are also outstanding. I recall from my graduate film school days when a noted professor remarked that the truly great filmmakers, like Fellini, make films that can be understood purely on visual terms. You can understand them with the sound turned off. So it is with Majidi’s Baran, a visual tour de force. Lateef and Rahmat/Baran are almost never shown in the same shot, yet we are always kept aware and involved of their relative positions and points of view -- and always in a very natural, flowing manner. Majidi uses the various sites, particularly the building site, in atmospheric and evocative fashion. One notable example is the 97-second crane shot depicting the first appearance of Soltan and Rahmat at the construction site. As it follows them continuously up three levels of the building to where they can talk to Memar, we unobtrusively get an overall feeling for the layout and activities of the work site.
At one point in the film, Lateef meets and engages an itinerant Afghan shoe repair man, who poetically offers this rumination:
From the hot fire of being apart
Comes the flame that burns the heart.
Comes the flame that burns the heart.
Iran is a country where poetic meditations on life's mysteries permeate all levels and areas of society. And Majidi is its cinematic Hafez.