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Child's perspective allows White Balloon to fly high


The White Balloon.

Directed by Jafar Panahi.

Starring Aida Mohammadkhani as Razieh.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

While lots of movies are made for children, and some of them even feature children, not so many movies are made for adults that look at the world through the eyes of a child. When a new one comes along, it invariably gets compared to the few that preceded it, but the comparison almost invariably misrepresents the movie. Such is the case with The White Balloon, a gently told gem about a Tehran girl who wants to get a special goldfish for her family's Naw-Ruz, or New Year's celebration.

Trailers trumpet The White Balloon as being "in the spirit of The 400 Blows and The Bicycle Thief," but that is at the very least misleading. Those movies follow adolescent male protagonists as they contend with problems of poverty and an uncaring adult world. Razieh, the seven-year-old at the center of The White Balloon lives in a neighborhood that doesn't seem overburdened with material wealth, but she can depend on the support of parents and older brother, and even strangers on the street, even if she can't quite get them to understand the magnitude of her desire for a special fish.

Razieh's story is filmed in real time; we experience with her the countdown to New Year's as she struggles first to convince her mother to let her buy the fish, and next to set out on the adventurous journey to fulfill her mission. Along the way she is tricked out of her money by some devious snake charmers, but manages to get it back. A more serious problem arises when she gets to the goldfish shop and discovers that she has misplaced the all the household money, which her mother had entrusted to her care.

This simple story enables director Jafar Panahi to capture a large slice of contemporary urban Persian life (while Iran is in what the West calls the Middle East, it is not an Arab country). Panahi makes his story even more racially complex by populating it with characters from other parts of Iran and neighboring countries, including an adolescent Afghani balloon seller. You probably shouldn't see this movie if you have learned to demonize "militant Muslims" and want to keep your prejudices intact.

Also opening today at the Kendall is the long-anticipated Hong Kong art film, Chunking Express, directed by Wong Kar-hai (more on that next week). Meanwhile, don't miss the opportunity to catch three other Wong films at the Brattle Theatre this weekend. Ashes of Time will screen on Friday and Saturday, coupled with As Tears Go By on Friday, and Days of Being Wild on Saturday.