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It’s hardly a secret that Iranian directors have been making films about children in part to bypass governmental interference and censorship. At the same time, they are working in and extending an international tradition of movies about childhood that includes such classics as Zero for Conduct, The Bicycle Thief, Forbidden Games, and The 400 Blows. Presenting a narrative from a child’s viewpoint can result in enhanced clarity or irony, depending upon a filmmaker’s purpose. Writer-director Majid Majidi opts for clarity in Children of Heaven, a straightforward story set in an impoverished district of Tehran.

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Nine-year-old Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian), charged with retrieving his younger sister Zahra’s only pair of shoes from a repair stall, loses them while completing his other chores. He and Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi) hatch a plan to conceal the loss from their financially burdened parents. Zahra agrees to wear her brother’s sneakers to her morning classes, and then dash home so that Ali can don them for his afternoon schooling. This quick-turnaround scheme places a strain on both children, especially Ali, a serious student whose tardiness confuses and frustrates his sympathetic teacher. The boy sees a possible solution to his problem when he enters a marathon race, a competition with a prize list that includes a pair of new sneakers.

Abetted by an ensemble of expressive nonprofessional performers, Majidi exhibits a remarkable gift for transforming mundane situations into arresting images. A sequence depicting Zahra’s desperate attempts to extricate Ali’s sneaker from a fast-flowing gutter is as excitingly staged as the inevitable car chases in American movies. The children, while washing their shared sneakers, fill the air with soap bubbles in a fleeting moment of poetic fantasy. Children of Heaven’s most satisfying element is Parviz Malekzade’s glowing camerawork, with its subtle gradations of beiges, grays, and whites. These sharp, clear images illuminate a world and culture that few of us will ever experience firsthand.

Majidi’s characters contrast boldly with the egocentric protagonists of domestic movies obsessed with self-gratification by any means possible. Ali’s ailing mother risks her survival to hold the family together. His father takes on any task offered to him, no matter how arduous or menial, to achieve the same goal. The children lovingly conceal information that would make their parents’ plight even harsher. Although these characters are crudely generic—selfless, long-suffering mom and dad; solemn, sad-eyed kids—it’s nonetheless refreshing to watch a contemporary movie in which people behave admirably.

Unfortunately, the weight and fear of government censorship deeply compromise Children of Heaven. Majidi sanitizes, even glamorizes, poverty: A family forced to survive in a single room enjoys the unlikely luxuries of a television set and a goldfish pond. The filmmaker daintily (or cravenly?) fails to confront the soul-crushing filth and stink of impoverishment. A long central sequence in which Ali and his father travel to a wealthy neighborhood in search of odd jobs vividly illustrates the staggering gap between Iran’s haves and have-nots, but it doesn’t occur to these have-nots to question the monstrous imbalance between their situation and those living privileged existences in lavish walled villas. In Majidi’s eyes, Ali and his family’s stoic acceptance of their plight demonstrates their virtuousness, in yet another iteration of the perpetually unfulfilled promise that the meek will somehow inherit the earth. When the neighborhood mosque hires Ali’s father to chop a block of sugar into small segments for use in a religious ceremony, the conscientious patriarch refuses to use even so much as a grain to sweeten his tea while he labors.

One might argue that, given the political constraints he faces, Majidi makes a useful contribution merely by displaying the extremes of wealth and poverty, and identifying his protagonists as Iranian Turks, the country’s largest ethnic minority. This information might prove edifying to Iranian audiences, but American viewers are unlikely to grasp the subtly implied ethnic theme (I didn’t until I read the director’s press material) and will probably be alienated by the film’s disinfected portrayal of poverty, as well as by its shamelessly manipulative slo-mo climactic race sequence derived from Rocky and Chariots of Fire.

Ultimately, the absence of political and social substance robs Children of Heaven of urgency and purpose. No doubt William Bennett, America’s porcine purveyor of unquestioning virtue, would warm to Majidi’s sentimental tale of exploited people passively bearing the yoke of oppression while remaining ethical exemplars. But those who view the world through a more complex and progressive lens will share my disappointment at the filmmaker’s failure (or lack of freedom) to address the problems he raises.CP