Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, one of the greatest directors working today, has always presented narratives imbued with the themes of Sufism and focused on the deepest personal and spiritual connections in the lives of his characters. His The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon, 2005) continues with these considerations, and in some ways it is his most explicitly philosophical work to date. Like his superb immediately preceding fiction films, Father (Pedar, 1996), Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye Aseman, 1997), The Color of Paradise (Rang-e Khoda, 1999), and Baran (2001), there is a focus on an individual who undergoes an anguish-filled, life-changing experience. At the close of all of those films, which always contain a contemplative shot over water, the main character has failed to achieve his personal goals, but we can see (even if the character, himself, is only dimly aware) that he has emerged as a more complete human being. This narrative arc is more or less parallelled in The Willow Tree, but perhaps not quite.
The story is relatively straightforward. Youssef, played by noted Iranian actor Parviz Parastui, is a middle-aged literature professor in Tehran who has been blind since the age of eight and who now lives relatively comfortably with his devoted wife and young daughter. At the beginning of the film, he is suffering from a worsened medical condition that he learns has become life-threatening. He prays to God to let him live, reminding God that he has already put up with his diminished life due to blindness for thirty-eight years. “If I come out of this darkness, I’d be with You forever,” he says in his mind to God. His family then send him to Paris for an operation on the tumour behind his eye in the hopes that it is not malignant. Unexpectedly, the tumour turns out to be benign, and the doctors are able to perform a cornea transplant that restores his sight. At the one-third mark of the film, he returns to Tehran a new man and open to the world of sight. But he does not experience the joy that he expected, and he is troubled by doubts about what he now really wants out of life. Before, his goal was simple, to see, but now things are more complicated. He sees himself now as old and sidelined: a victim who has missed out on the chances to have a full life. He is distracted by the complexity of the newly-discovered visual world, including the hypnotic allure of attractive women. Previously, when blind, he was always looked after by the people around hm, but now he sees himself as only having been a passive ward of others. Assertive action is now required of him, but he is paralysed and frustrated. His wife, feeling neglected, leaves him, and he miserably burns all his past writings, feeling that they represented his past, wasted life. But just as he at his most self-pitying, he loses his sight again and is returned to the world of darkness. The film ends with his sorrowful contemplation of his earlier plea to God to give him a second chance.
On the surface, this story sounds like a simple moral tale, and this is how it has been interpreted by most critics. A man makes a bargain God, wishing for something and promising to change his life. The man fails to live up to his end of the bargain, so the granted wish is taken away at the end. But are we to assume that a filmmaker such as Majidi, so inspired by Sufi mysticism, would be simply cautioning his viewers by invoking the crude economics of moral bookkeeping? Surely there must be more to this story than that.
First, we must bear in mind that Youssef, himself, is a professor specialising in Iranian Sufi poetry. The issues of love, freedom, and the spirit would not be unknown to him. Early in the film, he has written that
“Rumi with his tact and sharp mind gave all he had to Shams-e-Tabrizi and told him to burn it. Was Shams getting something in return? As for Rumi, he always bet on love and expected nothing in return.”It is perhaps reflecting on this act of Rumi's that he later burns his own books and writings. Even when Youssef returns from Paris with his sight restored and is distracted by his uncle’s vivacious sister-in-law, Pari, there is still a connection with his interests in Sufi poetry. Pari has given him her student thesis on Sufi poetry to review, and later he appears to be reading and highlighting this thesis (the book he is reading at this time has the same red binding as the thesis that Pari had earlier handed to Youssef’s wife, Roya). He is inspired by a commingling of both her comments about Sufi poetry and her exuberant womanliness.
He is presumably aware of the relative insignificance of the world of words and abstract ideas, when they are compared with the vital reality of embodied existence. Yet, as a blind man, that world of words had been his primary option and had come to dominate his existence. As a successful academic, the life of words was a natural focus, and he had not wholly engaged in the fullness of life. So I would contend that his earlier domestic life of blindness was not necessarily a paradise lost, but had been instead a passive world of minimal engagement. A key shot in the film is when Youssef first experiences the wonders of the visual world in the hospital. He looks down at a window blind and sees an ant carrying a grain of food across the blind. This reveals a world, not simply of objects and shapes, but one that is alive, even down to the smallest things. It is a mysterious, vital world that is animated with a life force, perhaps the all-pervasive God. The shot of the ant may also be a reference to a passage from Rumi’s great work, Masnavi:
The spirit is like an ant, and the body like a grain of wheatHere, the ant represents the vital spirit that animates all of reality, and it is that aspect to which we must direct our awareness, not just to the cold, lifeless objects in the world. It is the spirits (the ants) that collectively make the world move, that animate it, and we should focus our consciousness on that level of reality. But it seems that Youssef has “lost sight” of this image. At the very end of the film, when Youssef is contemplating his earlier written plea to God to give him another chance, we again see an ant carrying a grain of food as it walks across the page. From our perspective we know that it is carrying not only the grain of food but the Sufi message that Youssef had forgotten.
which the ant carries to and fro continually.
The ant knows that the grains of which it has taken charge
will change and become assimilated.
One ant picks up a grain of barley on the road;
another ant picks up a grain of wheat and runs away.
The barley doesn't hurry to the wheat,
but the ant comes to the ant, yes it does.
The going of the barley to the wheat is merely consequential:
it's the ant that returns to its own kind.
Don't say, "Why did the wheat go to the barley?"
Fix your eye on the holder, not on that which is held.
As when a black ant moves along on a black felt cloth:
the ant is hidden from view; only the grain is visible on its way.
But Reason says: "Look well to your eye:
when does a grain ever move along without a carrier?"
-- (Masnavi VI: 2955-2962)
Related to this is Youssef’s existential inability to take action in his newly animated world. This can be connected with his previous forced (because he was blind) existence that was almost exclusively in the realm of the narratives of others (including his family members), as opposed to his own autonomous life constructed from direct experience. French director Robert Bresson has remarked that he hates drama and the theatre, because they always represent someone’s already existing “story”. All the events in a drama, according to Bresson, are connected to identified causes – causes that have been identified and ascribed by the storyteller. But when we, ourselves, experience the world in its existential flow, there are no immediately perceived causes for events – those causes are only attributed later by us, upon reflection. At the time we experience the immediate events, there are no causes tied to them. Bresson insisted that, in contrast with typical dramas, he wanted to craft films such that the viewer did not have any prepackaged causes tied to the events that are depicted (hence his aversion to any theatrical “performances” on the part of his actors that would be motivated by their own prepackaged narratives). Bresson wanted the viewer of his films to bear a much greater burden in constructing the story in his own head as he watches the film – an activity that would simulate our experience of everyday life as we live it. From this perspective, we can see that Youssef is a person who has always lived with existing narratives and their prepackaged narrative causes. When he is out there in the world of direct visual experiences, he is unable to construct his own narratives that afford suitable action. So he is frozen in his tracks.
From this angle, we can understand what happens when Youssef visits a jewelry factory, where they are making artifacts with melted gold. Perhaps contemplating the contrast between this concrete world of rivulets of melted gold and more abstract thoughts of Rumi’s visit to the goldsmith, Salah ud-Din-e Zarkub, he is startled out of his reverie by an accidental shower of sparks from the furnace that spray onto him. This world of gold-crafting is alive and dangerous! Later, he watches a pickpocket at work on the subway and remains paralysed in inaction while the theft is carried out. Moreover, he feels an emotional desire for the girl Pari, but is unable to take any decisive action on that front, as well. In all these cases, he demonstrates his inability to act – he sees, but is confused by both all the options and his personal responsibilities. He is still disengaged from life, and he knows it. This is what drives him mad. Note that the Farsi title of the film, “Beed-e Majnoon”, carries with it an additional colloquial suggestion of madness, in reference to the Iranian legend of Leila and Majnoon, in which Majnoon goes mad with love for Leila.
On the technical production side, it is worth nothing that although the film is beautifully crafted and photographed, the Iranian prohibition concerning the presentation of adult Iranian women is severely restrictive. Women must be shown wearing the hejab at all times, even inside their own homes, which is unnatural. Not only are men and women forbidden to kiss, of course, they cannot even touch in any way. This is a problem that Iranian filmmakers try to overcome in creative ways, but it is clearly problematic, for example in the case when Youssf is joyfully greeted by his wife and family upon his return from Paris. In addition, there are elements in the film that I find somewhat open-ended and make me wonder.
- The flashback scene where Roya recollects an episode in Youssef’s classroom in which he had dropped his ring on the floor, is unclear. What is it's significance? The fact that almost all the action in the film is seen from Youssef’s perspective, make this scene from Roya’s point of view stand out. But what is this scene’s import?
- Later in the film when Youssef is wandering around in the night, lost in his confused and frustrated thoughts, he is shown walking down a dark lane. In the middle of this shot, there is a dissolve to Youssef, seen from the same perspective but much further away from the camera. Why such an odd transition? There doesn't seem to be any motivation for this or progression suggested by the shot.
- At the end of the film, the blind-once-again Youssef, having awakened and found himself delivered back to the pool in his own garden, desperately searches for his earlier, Braille-written plea to God for another chance. Though sightless, he knows it’s in the bottom of the pool somewhere, and he finds it and reads it again. Although this is a dramatic reminder to the audience of his earlier promise to God, it’s motivation within the action here is not clear. He presumably knows what’s printed on the paper, or he wouldn’t be searching for it. Why, if he knows what's written on it, does he want that paper so much?
- And what is the role of his friend, Morteza, whom he meets at the hospital in Paris? There are suggestions that Morteza (played with characteristic panache by Mohammad Amir Naji, who had performed admirably in Children of Heaven and Baran) is a messenger from God: his two appearances are connected with critical changes in Youssef’s situation, and he appears to have unworldly knowledge of Youssef’s circumstances. He writes Youssef a letter, in which he says:
“Tell me what’s worth seeing, and I will tell you what’s not worth seeing. Ever since I have practiced not seeing, I have seen many wonderful things.”What is Morteza's intent? In any case, one wonders if perhaps the charismatic Morteza’s presence in the film should have been more emphasized.
In addition there is the question as to whether Youssef is now a more enlightened person at the end of this story. I believe that he is not, and this means it would be a departure from the earlier Majidi films in which the protagonist always emerges from his ordeal as a better person. In their closing shots over water, those other Majidi films evoke an epiphany about the richness of human existence. In each case something in the material world has been lost, but something higher, in the world of the soul, has been gained. But in The Willow Tree that epiphany, for me, was not present. Youssef is simply suffering, and he has been returned to darkness. He may have seen the "light", but it is not clear. His brief opportunity to see just how rich and complex is the world of human interaction has led him to despise even more the sightless life to which he is now returned. He has still not learned how to reach out to others and to take action.