If Iranian neorealism had a Dogma-style list of requirements, Majid Majidi’s films would almost satisfy them. Like such fellow contemporary Iranian directors as Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, Majidi makes semidocumentaries about everyday people and frequently enlists such people to play the principal roles. He focuses on youngsters, telling coming-of-age stories with a minimum of dialogue. And he shoots with natural light in humble but evocative surroundings, from The Children of Heaven’s dusty back streets to the bustling lo-tech construction site of his latest effort, Baran.
Yet Majidi also has a taste for hoary genre conventions; his films tend to shift from naturalism to melodrama by their final reels. The Children of Heaven ended with a Rocky-like triumph of the underdog; The Color of Paradise traveled from a realistic depiction of an urban school for the blind to a dramatic father-and-son denouement beside a rushing stream. Baran ends on a quieter note than those predecessors, but it, too, has elements of a genre flick—it’s sort of an Islamic-adolescent Hepburn-Tracy romantic comedy, minus the happy ending.
Cocky Iranian teenager Latif (Hossein Abedini) prepares tea and meals for construction workers at a building site of dubious safety and legality; his boss, Memar (Mohammad Amir Naji), employs many undocumented Afghan refugees, who must hide every time government inspectors visit. After being injured in a fall from the structure, one Afghan man sends his son Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami) to work in his place. Rahmat is young and slight, and can’t handle heavy loads; Latif has recently annoyed Memar. So the boss gives Latif’s job to the new boy, forcing the Iranian youth to take more strenuous tasks. Bitterly resentful, Latif tries to sabotage Rahmat, but then he learns the boy’s secret: He’s a she. Suddenly, Latif is smitten, and his attempts to learn more about Rahmat (actually named Baran, which means “rain”) allow Majidi to portray the life of Afghan refugees in Iran.
Characteristically, Majidi’s depiction of this one-sided relationship combines naturalism—the Afghans are played by actual refugees—with old-fashioned contrivance. Latif’s passion for Baran, who lives in a rough camp near a cemetery, is as ennobling (and chaste) as love in a ’50s Hollywood movie; the formerly selfish teenager becomes an altruist, if a somewhat bumbling one, who pursues a plan to help the girl and her family. Meanwhile, the object of Latif’s affections is a beguiling if distant figure, communicating mostly with shy glances and endowed with traditional feminine virtues. (Aside from her build, the first clue that the film’s namesake is a girl comes when the workers find her cooking far more palatable than Latif’s.) The idealization of Baran is part Hays Code, part Islamic law: The crucial scene where Latif glimpses her secretly brushing her hair, for example, had to be staged so that Iranian viewers couldn’t actually see the actress’s tresses.
Baran was made, of course, before the fall of the Taliban. Some of the Afghan refugees in Iran—estimated to be as many as 3 million at their peak—have returned home. This development blunts the impact of the final sequence—and calls into question Miramax’s decision not to release the film sooner. (It had brief December 2001 runs in New York and L.A. to qualify it for the Oscars.) Still, Baran’s depiction of Islamic gender rules and roles remains compelling. It’s fitting that the film, after following Majidi’s customary narrative path from society to the individual, ends with a chilling moment in which Baran becomes an Afghan everywoman.
War is hell, but not so troublesome as love to the hero of Enigma, another respectable period picture from styleless middlebrow director Michael Apted. Adapted from a thriller by novelist Robert Harris, the movie turns on actual incidents from World War II, the central one being a feverish attempt to crack German military radio transmissions using a captured Enigma coding machine (a computer forerunner also featured in U-571, an equally retro wartime drama).
The tale begins with a crisis: The Germans have just switched from a code that’s already been breached by the twitchy math prodigies at Bletchley Park, the Brits’ bucolic code-breaking center, to a new and impenetrable one. Large ship convoys are already crossing the Atlantic with U.S. supplies for Britain and the Soviet Union, and are expected to encounter packs of predatory U-boats within four days. The vulgar, foul-tempered American brass come calling, insisting that Bletchley’s brains decipher the new code in time to prevent a massive sub attack on the ships.
That’s a major undertaking for brilliant if disheveled Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), even on a good day. But Tom hasn’t had a good day since he was dismissed by free-spirited temptress—and Bletchley Park file clerk—Claire Romilly (a skeletal Saffron Burrows). While Tom and his colleagues try to outsmart the Germans, at least half of his mind power is devoted to two seemingly unrelated mysteries: why Claire dumped him and where she’s gone. Claire’s frumpy, proto-feminist housemate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), hasn’t seen the mystery woman in a few days, and smirky counterintelligence officer Wigram (Jeremy Northam) is beginning to ask questions. He suspects there’s a mole at Bletchley, and the disappearance of a woman who’s “slept with half the Park” casts doubt on all her former lovers, including Tom.
Of course, the mystery of Claire is not unrelated to Tom’s code-breaking work. Everything fits together neatly in Harris’ scenario, including real-life events whose significance didn’t become known for decades after the war ended. Still, it seems highly implausible that Tom and his new ally Hester would—or could—conduct their own investigation, bluffing their way into top-secret archives and driving around the countryside with an Enigma machine in the back of their roadster. Before his impromptu inquiry concludes, bookish Tom has learned how to hop onto moving trains and drive to remote parts of the country at a speed that would be unlikely even on the expanded motorways of today’s post-gasoline-rationing Britain.
Anachronisms don’t faze Apted (whose credits include Gorky Park and Coal Miner’s Daughter) or his collaborators, who include scripter Tom Stoppard. The latter’s worst gaffe isn’t the clangingly contemporary use of “presently” in an opening scene but a general lack of Stoppardian flair. Northam’s Wigram is the only one who has it, and he demonstrates it consistently in only one scene, the one where the self-amused counterspy barges into Tom’s room and thoroughly enjoys asking him embarrassing questions about his affair with Claire and its messy aftermath.
Apparently afraid of directing an egghead thriller—sort of The Name of the Rose with Nazis—Apted crosscuts frequently to more visceral story lines: The movie hops back in time, to golden scenes of Tom’s fling with Claire, and across space, to the gray Eastern Front and grayer North Atlantic. This strategy is enough to make the film watchable but insufficient to disguise its many old-fashioned gambits, from attempting to render its stars unglamorous simply by putting glasses on them to pulling a prime suspect out of nowhere in the tale’s final third. If World War II had been as pat as this movie, it would have been over before the historical events depicted in Enigma ever occurred. CP