"The Song of Sparrows" - Majid Majidi (2008)

With a string of contemplative, existentialist dramas about modern life, Majid Majidi has established himself as one of the foremost filmmakers anywhere. Although his films are set in contemporary Iran, and for that reason attract a certain amount of socio-political attention, the works reflect universal themes that could apply in any setting. His latest film, The Song of Sparrows (Avaze Gonjeshk-ha, 2008) continues this pattern, following on from Father (Pedar, 1996), Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye-Aseman, 1997), The Color of Paradise” (Rang-e Khoda, 1999), Baran (2001), and The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon ,2005).

In most of Majidi’s films, the protagonist, always a male, struggles through a life-changing experience that ostensibly ends in a crushing defeat. But at the conclusions of these films, the effect of the struggle has (usually) elevated the protagonist to a higher level of understanding about the world and about human relations. This is not a theoretical understanding, but something else – an intuitive sensitivity to interactive experience that goes beyond the verbal. And this is what connects Majidi’s films to Sufism and other extramundane spiritual practices.
This is not to suggest that Majidi’s characters are particularly philosophical. They are typically drawn from the working classes and have, for the most part, not had a higher education. In this connection, though, one must make note of the fact that the popular culture of Iran permeating all social levels is generally more reflective about destiny and spiritual matters than those of Western societies.

The story concerns the experiences of Karim, a middle-aged family man who lives in a village outside of Tehran, where he is initially seen working at his job on an ostrich farm. After a momentary oversight causes him to lose his job at the farm, Karim’s struggles to earn a living by other means take him to another world altogether – the hectic and confusing opportunities of the Tehran metropolis. There he finds himself faced with the conflicting moral dilemmas of modern life. Although this basic story theme has been presented countless times, the organic development of the story, with its compelling visual metaphors, has a slow, understated build-up that make it effective.

The narrative of The Song of Sparrows is filled with many little incidents and episodes, but it traces through roughly four main sections.
1. Karim at the Ostrich Farm (22 minutes).
The film opens with striking pictures of ostriches and then shows us Karim’s energetic attendance to their feeding and to collecting their huge eggs. His work is interrupted with news that Haniyeh, his teenage daughter back in the village, has lost her hearing aid in the local irrigation reservoir. He rushes back to retrieve this irreplaceably expensive item, but when recovered it turns out to be broken. Back at the ostrich ranch, Karim is momentarily distracted by the way some of his work crew are mishandling the birds, which gives one of the ostriches the opportunity to escape from its pen and head out over the barren landscape. Karim’s strenuous efforts to find the bird come to naught, and when the boss returns, Karim learns that he has been sacked. This section has served to introduce Karim and his family (a wife and three children) and its relatively modest circumstances; it ends with the disruptive event of Karim’s loss of employment. At this point three disastrous losses have occurred for Karim: the loss of his daughter’s hearing aid, the loss of the ostrich, and the loss of his job. How is the unskilled Karim going to feed his family and replace his daughter’s expensive hearing aid?

2. Karim Goes to the City (22 minutes) . Undaunted by the crisis, Karim rides his motorbike to the crowded streets of Tehran to see if the hearing aid can be repaired. After learning from a doctor that he will somehow have to buy a prohibitively expensive new one, he returns to mount his motorbike and is, just at that moment, mistakenly taken by a hurried businessman to be a private taxi operator. These private taxis are technically illegal in Iran, but they are tolerated, because this is the only practical way to move the vast urban population about the crowded the streets of the city. Soon Karim realizes that he can make some money this way, and he begins pursuing this line of work in earnest. The businessmen that he subsequently picks up are all rushing about in the congested Tehran rat race, often making deals with their mobile phones as they ride on the back of his bike. Karim also discovers from overhearing the mobile phone conversations that these businessmen are often pretending to be what they are not – one of them even assures his listener insistently, “I’m in Mashhad” (another city several hundred miles east of Tehran).

Karim also observes that what is considered junk in Tehran would have some value back in his village. He picks up a tossed-out TV aerial and takes it back home to enhance his own TV reception. Soon he starts taking home other items to see if he can repair them and add to his homestead. While Karim is busy entering the hurly-burly world of capitalism, hoping to enrich himself, he learns that his son, Hussein (who is maybe 11-years-old) is similarly busy with his own dreams of enrichment. He and his boyfriends have somehow come up with the inane idea that they can become millionaires if they can grow and sell thousands of goldfish in the village water reservoir. So they are all working diligently to do what seems impossible: clean all the mud out of the reservoir so that it can be fit for their goldfish farm. To Karim this is crazy, and he scolds his son for wasting his time. At this point in the story Karim’s fortunes are on the upswing, and he is hopeful. He has decided to make his living as a motorbike taxi driver and junk repair man, and he tells his wife that he can make more money this way than by getting an ordinary unskilled worker’s job. He gives his friend, Ramezan, an offering to place at the shrine in Mashhad in the hopes that his life will continue to improve.

3. Karim’s Work in the City (25 minutes).
Having already stumbled into the job of a cycle taxi driver and junk repairman, Karim stumbles into another lucrative operation: that of a goods porter in the city. But Karim’s acquisitiveness is growing, too, and this swings the narrative arc in a downward direction. He uses a fake ID card to join a group of hired cyclists transporting refrigerators. But when his bike stalls during the mission, he loses sight of the group ahead of him and gets lost. He now succumbs to the temptation to sell his cargo refrigerator on the black market and pocket the money for himself. But the chance sighting of some ostriches on a truck somehow strikes a chord with his conscience, and he ultimately returns the refrigerator box to the original warehouse. Nevertheless Karim’s increasing obsession with commercial gain is still dominating his outlook, as is evidenced by his subsequent reluctance to pay a young girl on the road selling smoking aspand (an Iranian custom dating from Zoroastrian times to ward of the “evil eye”) anything more than the minimum amount.

Later while riding on a Tehran motorway, Karim happens to see Haniyeh and Hussein selling flowers, and he loses his temper at their actions that, from his selfish perspective, are making him lose face. In a rage, he abusively smacks poor Haniyeh, and when he returns home and learns that the flower-selling was undertaken to support Hussein’s absurd fish-farming schemes, completely blows his top. But when he storms over to the water reservoir with destructive intent, he is shocked to see that the boys have actually completed their arduous task and have cleaned up the reservoir enough for fish to live in it. Though mollified somewhat, he is still obsessed with his own junk-repair operations, which have now filled the front area of his house. While climbing over a mountain of it to arrange some of the items, he falls and breaks his leg.

4. A Change of Heart. (26 minutes).
With Karim now disabled, he can only watch passively while his wife and children earnestly set about making ends meet by working as farm labourers. After the dog-eat-dog world of competitive commerce in Tehran, his eyes are newly opened to the cooperative and communal style of life in his village. He is touched and starts to see things differently. On a trip to the doctor in Tehran, he is accompanied by the village boys seeking to buy goldfish for their foolish fish-farm scheme. When the boys lose all their fish in an accident and are devastated, Karim smiles benignly at their tragedy and sees the beauty of life in a larger context. At the end of the film he sees a sparrow trapped in his room, and he opens the door to set it free. When his friend Ramezan reports that the wayward ostrich from the ostrich farm has returned, Karim reflects on how he has changed since that original loss, and he lapses into a dream or meditation in which the ostriches appear as splendiferous creatures of God.
There are several significant symbolic themes in the The Song of Sparrows. Ostriches have long been images of iconic importance in Eastern Africa and the Middle East, going back to ancient Egyptian times [1]. Their enormous size as the largest birds and their fierce appearance have undoubtedly been the inspiration of mythical images of winged monsters and deities. The huge size of ostrich eggs connotes the power of renewal and rebirth at springtime and has its own iconic significance. Throughout the film, when Karim sees ostriches or their eggs, he seems to be reminded of something transcendent beyond his own immediate circumstances. These moments of reflection occasioned by ostrich sightings occur in all four acts, notably when he is spurred to return the refrigerator to the warehouse in Act 3. In all these cases, the ostrich seems to suggest the fearful and stirring power of life, but also the power of death.

Sparrows, by contrast, are at the opposite end of the bird spectrum – small and assumed to be individually insignificant. But sparrows also reflect the ever-teeming wonder and vitality of nature. After the village boys have cleaned out the water reservoir, some sparrows have come to nest there. When Karim releases the sparrow from his room at the end, it reflects his renewed sensitivity to the small, daily rhythms of life. If ostriches suggest individuality, sparrows suggest community.

Another symbolic reference is associated with Karim’s observation of his son’s and companions’ foolish obsession with making a fortune from a goldfish farm. This is a symbolic microcosm of God looking down at his (and our) own foibles. Karim’s mad quest to make money and forget about the important things of life was, from the celestial perspective, just as trivial as the boys’ schemes. After his accident in the last part of the film, Karim begins to view the boys’ activities with a benign tolerance. He sees their narrow-minded struggles to become “millionaires” with a loving and caring benevolence, just as we might hope God might see our own error-filled ways.

Majid Majidi is sometimes classed with his countrymen, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi as a neorealist filmmaker. Although they all tend to concentrate focalization on a single main character, there are significant differences in terms of their respective visual narrative styles. Kiarostami tends to have long and static camera takes, that keep the viewer relatively uninvolved with the action. Even when Kiarostami’s camera is relatively in close, it seems to occupy an emotionally neutral position. Thus his mise-en-scene has an overall distancing effect on the viewer. Majidi, in contrast, features a fluid, dynamic visual style that keeps the viewer involved as if it were an unseen participant in the action. His style entails carefully crafted action cuts and well-motivated point-of-view shots throughout – a remarkable achievement in view of the natural, often urban, settings and the use of a mostly unprofessional cast. Panahi occupies something of a middle position between Kiarostami and Majidi, with relatively long camera takes, but very adroitly performed camera movements that maintain more of a narrative involvement and are ultimately less-distancing than Kiarostami’s cinematography. As a consequence of Majidi’s well-motivated cinematography and fluid editing, the viewer of his films has a much greater emotional involvement with the narrative flow. In addition, while Kiarostami’s principal characters are frequently somewhat cut off from (and hence more reflective about) their social contexts, Majidi’s characters are more immersed in their social environments. But even with this contextual immersion in Majidi’s films, there are always moments when the principal character has an epiphany, a flash of awareness, and this experience is intuitively shared by the viewer. Incidentally, this is the first Majidi film (in my recollection) that does not end with a shot overlooking water.

Although Majidi occasionally employs actors with professional experience, only the lead actor in The Song of Sparrows had professional acting experience, and that was Mohammad Amir Naji (aka Reza Naji), who was an earlier non-professional discovery of Majidi’s and had appeared in Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye-Aseman, 1997), Baran (2001), and The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon, 2005). In all of those earlier performances, Naji, although only a supporting actor, was a magnetic and compelling presence who added crucial energy to the narrative. In The Song of Sparrows, Naji is thrust to centre stage, as Karim, and he occupies an extraordinary amount of screen time. For his efforts on this occasion, Naji won the “Silver Bear” at the Berlin Film Festival, and “Best Performance by an Actor” at the 2008 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Despite this recognition and my great appreciation for his earlier performances, I found Naji’s performance in The Song of Sparrows to represent the one serious weakness of the film.

Naji’s performance here is so over-the-top and strained that it borders on music hall theatrics. There is too much grimacing and melodramatic posturing, and it runs against the naturalistic setting that has been painstakingly established with the film and its other performers. In addition Naji’s face has been cosmetically altered with a considerably elongated nose, a different jaw line, and a strange set of teeth. This gives him an almost clownish appearance and suggests that some of the scenes are played for laughs. Although such effects can lighten the tone, they also keep the viewer from sympathising with Karim’s situation and moral struggles. The net effect is that Naji’s performance plays against the strengths of Majidi’s film and diminishes its effectiveness, thereby keeping the film from reaching the level of Majidi’s best work.

In The Song of Sparrows the otherworldly references in the film are enhanced by the occasional and nonintrusive background music of Hossein Alizadeh, a preeminent Iranian tar musician and composer of music for classical instruments. This gives a melancholic feeling to the story, and at the end, a sense of calm and resignation at the infinite complexity of existence. Does this suggest passivity and fatalism, that one should always be resigned to one’s humble circumstances? Let us hope not. One can’t help but admire the never-say-die fortitude and belief-in-himself of Karim, as he is viewed in the earlier stages of the film. Although something of a rube from the countryside, Karim is industrious and energetic, always looking for new opportunities. What we should take from this story is not a recommendation for passivity, but the conviction that Karim's indomitable energy can only be enriched by a broader appreciation of the cooperative harmony of nature and humanity. Overall, though, The Song of Sparrows is another impressive installment in Majidi’s continuing existential exploration of the higher and more spiritual levels of human experience.
★★★

Notes:
  1. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam”, by Nile Green, Al-Masaq, Volume 18, Issue 1 March 2006 , pp. 27 - 66.

4 comments:

sandeephalder said...

the return of the ostrich in the farm parallels karim's return to his roots.what say...? nice review

Aningeniousname said...

I just saw this film the other night and I absolutely loved the simplicity and honesty of the story and although I agree a little with what you say about the main actor being a touch comic but I thought this gave the film a nice whimsical nature and helped it flow smoothly.
We always know things will work out for him because he is a good man and this light touch allows us to enjoy his story and take lessons from it. Reminds me a lot of the Sufi teaching stories.

Great blog too, I have bookmarked it.
Keep it up!

Meg said...

I watched the film last night and was very moved. Thank you for your insights. I disagree, however, with your insistence that the boys' fish-farm plans were absurd and worthy of Karim's disapproval. His stubborn refusal to see the power of their dreams, to acknowledge their resourcefulness, to honor their childhood, is a deep flaw in his character. The flaw is indeed trated with compassion by the filmmaker. There is no doubt that his wife accepts him as he is because she is the quiet source of strength in the family. For me, the moment where I hoped Karim would benefit from the beauty his personal insecurity had blinded him to, was when, resting helplessly with his broken leg, he overheard his wife and son talking about Hussein's plans to purchase the fish from their neighbor. Did Karim see that the way the Mother sees the Child is truly with the eyes of love? The child will not be more foolish for having his dreams supported. The child will grow into a loving man who does not fear to imagine the unimaginable.

Bekir Sait said...

I really liked your reviews, Mostly I could not notice the things in your way. I think it is an art to review the films :)

Thank you!