"Baran" is a love story set amid chaos and poverty in Iran. It's about the unexpected passion that springs up between an Iranian boy and an Afghan refugee who work together on a construction site in Tehran.
The subject obviously has a burning topicality -- a note informs us that 1.4 million Afghan refugees were displaced into Iran at the time the movie was made (before Sept. 11). And the film is imbued by Majid Majidi, writer-director of "The Children of Heaven," with a mix of gritty realism, crisp storytelling and radiant compassion that effortlessly draws you in.
The story is luminously simple. At a half-completed building where most of the workers are illegal Afghan refugees, a combative young Iranian named Lateef (Hossein Abedini) mercilessly persecutes a physically weak young Afghan named Rahmat, whom he blames for costing him a cushy job as the site's tea boy. Then he discovers that Rahmat is really Baran (Zahra Bahrami), a beautiful, silent teenager with huge soft eyes, pressed into labor by her family after her father, another Afghan refugee, suffers a crippling accident.
Shocked, then curious, then smitten, Lateef falls hopelessly in love with Baran. In doing so, the quarrelsome, selfish boy becomes a kind, selfless lover who sacrifices everything to help Baran and her family -- up to destroying his own security and perhaps losing her forever.
The best movie romances are often ones where the lovers are kept apart for most of the movie. That's almost what happens in "Baran." The couple rarely exchange a word or any but fleeting contact. Lateef loves Baran perhaps more for what she represents to him: poverty, helplessness and dedication to her family. Moved by her self-sacrifice, he begins sacrificing himself: his time, his job, his money -- kept for him by the kind but pinchpenny construction employer, Memar (Mohammad Reza Naji) -- and finally his very identity.
Lateef goes to incredible, even foolish lengths, to help Baran and her family, and he receives almost nothing tangible in return. The ending of "Baran," which I found deeply moving, will only work for uncynical audiences who understand and are touched by that kind of self-immolating love -- or by the plights of poor or Third World people.
Yet Majidi isn't credulous or shallow about either the love story or the wider social tragedy. He shows us the real plight of today's Afghans in Iran: their exploitation at work, even by the relatively generous Memar, and their persecution by government authorities. And he conveys without sentimentality how some of the Afghans -- including one refugee with whom Lateef entrusts all his money -- are themselves pushed into selfishness by poverty.
Of all Iranian filmmakers, Majidi is the one most in tune with western audiences and western sensibilities. If Iranian cinema often suggests a late flowering of the principles of Italian postwar neo-realism -- realistic stories told against real backgrounds with sometimes non-professional casts -- then Majidi might be called that country's Vittorio De Sica ("Umberto D.").
Like De Sica, he began as an actor. Like De Sica, he has an affinity for children, amateur actors and emotional portraits of social injustice.
"Baran," which transpires mostly in that bare, cavernous half-building, with its buzzing hive of activity -- or in the streets and open air of the city -- is a film that uses beautiful tableaux and convincingly raw actors to build to a climax of shatteringly understated poignancy and power. Like De Sica, Majidi reveals and celebrates poetically people who are mostly, sadly forgotten.
Directed and written by Majid Majidi; photographed by Mohammad Davudi; edited by Hassan Hassandoost; production designed by Behzad Kazzazi; music by Ahmad Pejman; produced by Majidi, Fouad Naha. A Miramax Film release; opens Friday, May 3. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG (language, brief violence).
Lateef -- Hossein Abedini
Memar -- Mohammad Reza Naji
Baran -- Zahra Bahrami
Soltan -- Hossein Rahimi
Najaf -- Gholam Ali Bakhsi
Innkeeper -- Bezad Rafie Antique Dealer -- Hossein Mahjoob
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times