"The Color of Paradise" - Majid Majidi (1999)

The Color of Paradise (Rang-e Khoda, literally "Color of God”), Majid Majidi’s fourth feature film, was released in 1999, directly following his Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven. In this film Majidi again demonstrates his ability to express in cinematic terms some of the deep stirrings we have about life. As with his two immediately preceding films, Father and Children of Heaven, the relationship between a young boy and his father plays a significant role in the narrative. In The Color of Paradise, however, Majidi goes even further beyond the immediacy of our ordinary circumstances and turns our eyes toward the transcendent. Of course we cannot see the transcendent with our eyes, and this is metaphorically reflected in the plight of the blind boy in the film.

The story concerns an eight-year-old boy who is blind and lives in a remote village with his widowed father, his two sisters, and his grandmother. Somewhat like Father, there are two equally significant protagonists in the story, the boy and his father. Some commentators have suggested that the father is an antagonist, not a protagonist, but I disagree – we follow their two separate journeys with equal concern. The father’s circumstances, that of a poor, semi-skilled labourer saddled with the care of three young children, are easier for us to fathom, so much of the early part of the film goes into showing us the world of Mohammed, the young boy.

The film opens with slow disclosure: a black screen and the sounds of children identifying tapes that are being played in a cassette recorder. When visuals appear, we find ourselves watching the last day of class before the summer break at a school for the blind in Tehran. Soon all the children are picked up into the loving arms of their parents, except one boy, Mohammed, whose father is late in coming. While he waits outside, we are gradually shown the world as it is to Mohammad, one restricted to sounds and tentative touching with the hands. At one point, Mohammad’s ears prick up; he has heard something. Carefully, he makes his way over to the foot of a nearby tree and searches around in the dried fallen leaves for something. It turns out to be a fledgling bird that has fallen from a nest. With great care and determination, the boy manages to pick up the fledgling, then climb up the tree, and locate the nest to which he can restore the little bird. It’s a skilfully edited sequence and reveals something about the way Mohammad relates to the world around him.

When the father, Hashem, arrives, he tells the school officials that he is too poor to take care of a blind boy and asks if he can be kept at the school. The school officials inform him that this is not possible, and it is clear that this is going to be a key issue for much of the film. Then the father takes his son back to his village situated in the lush, green Caspian area of Iran. Since much of Iran has a stark, arid landscape, the Caspian area, with its groves and wildflowers, has a special attraction for many Iranians. So an Iranian viewer would likely be even more mindful of Mohammad’s inability to see and enjoy the richly colourful landscapes shown throughout the film. Nevertheless, Mohammad’s intimate encounter with the natural world of his village, assisted by the close relationships he has with his two sisters and grandmother, is full of joy and wonder. He wants to learn the language of nature, just as he has had adeptly learned braille at his school, so that he can go on and participate in all the dialogues of nature’s creatures.

The father, meanwhile, is struggling to fashion a satisfactory life for himself in the adult world of affairs. Widowed for the past five years and with a young family to support, he hopes to find the companionship of another wife – not so easy when you are neither young nor rich and are living in the socially-restricted circumstances of rural Iran. Having a handicapped boy to raise is a further burden that causes him to curse his bad fortune. He has his heart set on a young woman nearby whose fiancé has recently died, and she appears to be receptive to his interest. Nevertheless, he has to get the approval of her extended family (which in Iran requires a dowry from the groom) and fears that his handicapped son will impede his chances. Mohammad’s grandmother, Aziz, observes this situation with concern. She loves little Mohammad and quietly scolds her son for placing his own personal desires above that of his family.

The father, though, is not a bad person, and we can feel for him, too. For him, life is a constant struggle, and he sees himself as a victim in a hostile world. At times when he travels alone, he apprehensively hears the noise of some wild animals, perhaps wolves, barking in the distance. The indistinct, threatening nature of this noise represent the unknown, the “evil eye”, which is lurking in the darkness, just around the corner. Worried about his son’s future, and his own, the father decides to see if he can apprentice the boy to a blind carpenter in a neighbouring village. He reasons that the carpenter can tutor the boy so that he can be able to earn a living.

Meanwhile, Mohammad, an avid student at the school for the blind, learns that the village school that his sisters attend hasn’t yet started its holiday break and begs them to let him go to the school with them. Eventually, this is allowed, and he is given a seat in the class. Fortunately, his braile lessons from the school for the blind match those of the village classroom, and Mohammad turns out to be the star pupil. He comes home thrilled to announce that he received a perfect score at school. This news, however, only irritates Mohammad’s father, since he still believes that the boy has no future in the village. Against the boy’s will, he forcibly takes him to the blind carpenter and leaves him there to be tutored.

The carpenter soon discovers that the boy is crying and asks why. The boy says that nobody loves him, not even God, and pours out his grief:
“Our teacher says that God loves the blind more, because they cannot see. But I told him if it was so, He would not make us blind so that we cannot see him. He answered, ‘God is not visible. He is everywhere. You can feel Him. You can see Him through your fingertips.’ Now I reach out everywhere for God till the day my hands touch Him.”
Back at the home, Grandma Aziz is distraught at Mohammad’s banishment and decides to leave the house, even though there is a heavy rainstorm. Hashem begs her to say, saying he took the boy away for his own good. He pleads his own case:
“What have I done wrong to be stuck with taking care of a blind child for the rest of my life. Who will look after me when I am old and weak. Why doesn’t the great god of your help me out of this misery. Why should I be grateful to Him? For the things I don’t have? For my miseries? For a blind child? For the wife I have lost?"
Aziz has no answer, only her simple way of being in the world, which is evidenced by her stooping, even in the midst of her distress, to help a stranded fish get back into the stream. Hashem eventually gets her back home, but she is now ill from a chill and soon dies. At the moment of her death, we are given to believe by her countenance and by a change in lighting that she sees and joins God.

Hashem receives yet another crushing setback. The family of the girl he wishes to marry has decided to cancel the upcoming marriage because of “bad omens”. So he goes to the carpenter and decides to bring Mohammad back home with him. While crossing a rickey bridge on the way home, the bridge collapses, and Mohammad falls into the swift stream and is rapidly swept down river. Hashem runs to help and jumps into the stream, but the swirling waters are too rough for him to do anything but try to say afloat. He is eventually deposited, unconscious, on the more calm banks of the river mouth into the Caspian. When he regains consciousness, he looks about him and sees the figure of Mohammad some distance away, lying on the shore.

Rushing over, he discovers that the boy is dead, and he weeps uncontrollably, with the boy in his arms. A flock of wild birds flies overhead, as the mystery of life for others goes on. In the final shot, the camera moves in from above to a close-up of Mohammad’s hand, showing the fingertips illuminated in the same eerie light shown at Aziz’s death, and moving slightly. Mohammad, too, has now joined God and is finally “seeing” Him with his fingers.

This is a religious film, but not one with the conventional religious answers. None of the living people in the film gains enlightenment – in this world, anyway. Hashem, perhaps, now realises the treasure he has lost. The only thing that we all have in this world is our participation in the joy of life, whatever our circumstances. Both Mohammad and Aziz were the ones who naively engaged the world in this way, and perhaps they were the one who gained the most, even in this earthly world. Mohammad had spent his time trying to “read” the stones on the beach, as if they were coded in braile. When we reflect on the hopeless absurdity of his effort, we are reminded that we, ourselves, are equally blind in our own attempts to read meaning in the world by means of our tools and power of analysis.

Much of what makes The Color of Paradise effective as a film are the pastoral scenes of Mohammad trying to discover the wonders of the world around him. These are contrasted with Hashem’s struggles as a builder, carrying out routine, repetitive, and strenuous tasks that have been set up in the more restricted world of economic society and that he must complete in order to earn his keep. The cinematography throughout the film is superb, and the filming of the collapsing bridge scene is particularly remarkable. The acting in the film is remarkable, too, since only the role of Hashem was filled by a professional actor, Hossein Mahjoub. (In fact Mahjoub’s performance may have been a bit too theatrical for the overall tenor of the film, but perhaps that theatricality was necessary.)

In several ways, The Color of Paradise is reminiscent of Fellini’s La Strada, including the final shot. The main figure in both films is a man who comes to a moment of suffering at the end of the film, when he has lost something precious. What makes both films great is the stress on this moment of suffering, itself. This moment is different from just learning a lesson, such as “oh, I should have acted differently, but now it’s too late.” It is that moment of suffering that brings us to another level of sensitivity about the world of life around us. This, essentially Sufi, revelation is something that is even more deliriously realized in Majidi’s next film, Baran.
★★★★

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