Arts & Entertainment

Review: 'The Song of Sparrows'

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"The Song of Sparrows" is a fitting name for the new film from Iranian writer-director Majid Majidi. Sparrows are, after all, the most ordinary of birds: small, brown, common. The overlooked and the ordinary is exactly the terrain Majidi loves to walk, and we see again in this film his deep affection for his country's common folk -- with their meager resources, menial jobs and yet surprisingly fulfilled lives.

That is not to say he is content to merely let the camera linger too long or too lovingly, though the cinematography by Tooraj Mansouri is beautiful, from sweeping rural vistas to the choking streets of Tehran and always the faces, etched with grime and life, eyes that pool with hurt, frustration, acceptance.

Majidi also enjoys toying with his characters, forever putting them in situations that send their internal moral compasses spinning, letting good and bad choices alike play out long enough for us to see the consequences. In his 1999 Oscar-nominated "Children of Heaven," when the girl whose one pair of shoes has been lost discovers that a schoolmate has somehow inherited them, she begins looking for ways to reclaim them. Yet after getting a glimpse of a life that seems more difficult than her own, she walks away.

In "The Song of Sparrows," which he co-wrote with Mehran Kashani, Majidi goes down that road again. Here we have Karim (Reza Naji), who works long days on an ostrich farm, caring for the birds and collecting the huge, delicate eggs. But things, which are never easy for this impoverished family man, are about to get more difficult.

An ostrich escapes, Karim gives chase, but the bird eludes him and he soon finds it has cost him his job. There are pressures building at home as well. Haniyeh (Shabnam Akhlaghi), his oldest daughter, is deaf, her hearing aid has broken and there is no money, especially now, to replace it; and he is at odds with his young son, Hussein (Hamed Aghazi), who with his friends has hatched a fanciful plan to raise fish in a nearby sludge pond, a venture he is sure will turn him into a millionaire.

But fortunes change in the most unexpected ways in Majidi's films, and on a trip into Tehran on his aging motorbike, Karim is mistaken for a taxi driver and a new career is born. Soon he is motoring businessmen around the city all day, leaving each night flush with more money than he ever imagined. He's also become a master scavenger, with a keen eye for how to use Tehran's castoffs to enrich the family's life. Soon TV antennas, window frames and more are strapped to the back of the motorbike and transported home.

The more Karim makes and the more his reclaimed junk pile grows, the more unsettled his life becomes. The contented and generous man who had nothing has become the discontented man, hoarding his scavenged treasures. Though there are many morals tucked inside "The Song of Sparrows," there is much humor too -- from the unexpected turns Karim's life takes to the search for the ostrich that got away.

This is the fourth collaboration for Naji and Majidi, and the actor and director feed off each other creatively, pushing the boundaries of the characters each time. The director is also particularly adept at eliciting wonderfully moving and funny performances out of children. That talent, which gave such life to "Children of Heaven," flows through "Sparrows" too, with Aghazi, as Karim's young son, delightfully defiant and unceasingly optimistic about his fish enterprise.

Watching his films as an American woman, though, I can't help but be struck by the stark cultural differences in the portrayal of family life, particularly the relationships between women and men. The characters Majidi draws of children and their fathers are rich: sometimes combative, always loving and textured. But the mothers never truly emerge from the background. They are efficient, hardworking, faithful, loved but lost to us as dimensional human beings with a range of emotions and stories of their own to tell.

In his 2001 film "Baran," we get a glimpse of the possibilities when it turns out that one of the co-workers fighting for work is a woman masquerading as a man -- the only way she would be considered for the job. But, even there, the moral dilemma to be faced and resolved remains the province of the men.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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