MOVIE REVIEW : Prize-Winner ‘Balloon’ a Satisfying Search for Fish


“The White Balloon” has stirred up such a fuss on so many fronts that how pleasantly small-scaled the film turns out to be comes as something of a surprise. The winner of both the International Critics Prize and the Camera d’Or for best first film at Cannes, the festival’s two toughest awards, it was a success at the New York Film Festival as well as Iran’s nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar before the country’s government attempted to withdraw it from consideration.

But though that level of acclaim may lead viewers to expect all kinds of razzle-dazzle, “The White Balloon’s” attraction is that it offers nothing of the kind. A completely charming, unhurried slice of life, it is both slow and sure-handed as it follows a small but fearsomely determined little girl on her amusing search for just the right ceremonial goldfish for her family’s new year’s celebration.


Director Jafar Panahi has not only done his film in real time, the hour and a half before the new year begins in modern Tehran, he has cast nonprofessionals in the key roles. In this he has followed his mentor, filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (“Through the Olive Trees”), who worked out the screenplay for his former assistant.


A director who believes “there is only one person somewhere who can perfectly incarnate each character,” Panahi made the ideal connection when he cast Aida Mohammadkhani as 7-year-old Razieh, the tiny terror with goldfish on her mind. Stubborn, suspicious, with the long face of a major league sulker, Razieh is no perky Shirley Temple, but her comical persistence in the face of endless obstacles is continually entertaining.

Given that the family has a goldfish pond right in their courtyard, Razieh’s mother is not eager to indulge her daughter’s whim to buy a special one in the market that “looks like it’s dancing when it moves its fins.” But Razieh is the essence of persistence, and, with the aid of her brother, she gets the family’s last bank note, much more money than is needed, to make her purchase.

Naturally, the journey of Razieh and her bank note to the goldfish seller is neither straight nor uneventful. Not only does the money get repeatedly lost and found, but Razieh has to contend with hurried, self-absorbed adults who are nowhere near as concerned with her plight as she is.

Her first antagonists are a pair of snake charmers, masters of duplicity who end up arguing with each other as the slithering reptile makes itself free with Razieh’s money.

Then she gets entangled with a tailor who is having a quirky argument with a customer about whether a given shirt has too big a collar or the man has too small a head. Finally there’s a very funny discussion with a homesick soldier who the suspicious Razieh gives more than her usual hard time to.

Though its reality-based artlessness may seem deceptively easy to accomplish, the reverse is true. In its puckish examination of the fine mess Razieh gets herself into, “The White Balloon” quietly introduces us to another culture and another way of looking at film. By putting itself in sync with the rhythms of everyday life, it offers a reminder that the simplest forms of filmmaking can be the most satisfying.

* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: completely unobjectionable.


‘The White Balloon’

Aida Mohammadkhani: Razieh

Mohsen Kalifi: Ali

Fereshteh Sadr Ofrani: Mother

Anna Bourkowska: Old Woman

Mohammad Shahani: Soldier

Mohammad Bahktiari: Tailor

Released by October Films. Director Jafar Panahi. Screenplay Abbas Kiarostami, based on an idea by Jafar Panahi, Parviz Shahbazi. Cinematographer Farzad Jowdat. Editor Jafar Panahi. Set designer Jafar Panahi. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

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