Children of Heaven (1997)

aka Bacheha-Ye aseman

2009 #83
Majid Majidi | 82 mins* | TV | PG

Children of HeavenChildren of Heaven is an Iranian film, which means it’s in a Foreign Language and it’s Subtitled. And yet, it was on ITV. Sometimes the mind boggles. Still, it was relegated to a post-midnight showing, so some things never change. Indeed, the one thing that inspired me to watch it is that it’s referred to by Roger Ebert in his wonderfully evangelical (about film, not Christianity (thank God!)) article to commemorate reaching 100 entries in his Great Movies series. I recommend it, incidentally; Children of Heaven comes up for good reason about halfway through.

The film itself is a charming little number, with a simple story about a brother and sister that nonetheless runs itself on inventive incident — the amount of (pleasingly light-hearted) drama it can ring from one missing pair of shoes is, in many ways, quite extraordinary. It also contains moments of simple beauty and pleasure, like blowing bubbles while cleaning or sunlight glittering on the goldfish pool. This is more what I had in mind when someone described Slumdog Millionaire as “feel-good”.

Speaking of which, Children of Heaven adds depth with an amiable commentary on poverty: this poor family live in close proximity to such rich ones, but they can all get along. When Zahra sees another girl wearing her shoes, she doesn’t confront her or demand them back, even when the other girl’s dad buys her a brand new pair and the all-important pair are thrown away again. Halfway through, Ali and their father go up to town and we see how the other half live — enough glass-fronted skyscrapers, dozen-laned roads, tree-lined avenues and blindingly-white mansions to rival any metropolis. And yet they don’t get angry at their lot, and the film doesn’t shove the obvious comparison down your throat. It doesn’t go for the simplistic and oft-tried “poor have little, but have each other so are ultimately happy; rich have lots, but are lonely and so ultimately sad” conclusion (though it does, briefly, err along that path), and nor does it end with the family getting rich and managing to move up in the world.

In fact, the finale deals solely with the issue of the shoes (pun not intended). It’s a long-distance running competition in which Ali must come third in order to win a new pair of sneakers. It’s nail-biting and a beautifully conceived idea — he doesn’t need to win, he needs to come third. If only mainstream films were so simply innovative more often.

Unfortunately, several plot threads feel underdeveloped or unresolved, ultimately coming across as a pleasant but unnecessary aside — the elderly neighbours, for example, who Ali delivers soup to in one scene, or the persistent landlord. The viewer can read more into these if they wish — the neighbours representing the generosity of those with nothing, for example, while we can assume the landlord is eventually paid off now Ali’s father apparently has better employment — but the film itself does nothing with them. There’s a difference between not spelling things out and just abandoning them, and perhaps Children of Heaven falls on the wrong side of this divide. It’s most galling at the very end (after the race), when the film seems to just stop abruptly. IMDb notes that originally there was an epilogue explaining Ali’s future which is for some reason absent from the American-released version, and the presence of something like that is indeed missed. However, the interweb can also provide theories on how the foreshortened ending does have significance, with the goldfish being symbolic, if one chooses to look for them.

But no matter — it seems churlish to complain about such diversions. Children of Heaven is a beautifully simple and good-hearted film and, apparently, a great way to introduce children to the notion of having to read while watching a film.

4 out of 5

* This is timed from ITV’s broadcast. The listed running time is 89 minutes; with PAL speed-up this would be c.85; hopefully the remaining three are accounted for by snipping the closing credits.

(Originally posted on 6th February 2010.)