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It’s not one of the classic Hollywood formulas, but the plot of The White Balloon is high concept: Child loses money, child finds money, child buys goldfish. This is a movie from Iran, though, where filmmakers are practiced in implying much within the elementary stories of young (always pre-pubescent) children and their modest yet momentous quests. Jafar Panahi’s film, however, takes one bold step beyond such Iranian childhood parables as Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s House?, Amir Naderi’s The Runner, and Bahram Bayzai’s Bashu: His protagonist is a girl.
Panahi worked as Kiarostami’s assistant on Through the Olive Trees, and the older director “wrote” Balloon. (Since Kiarostami never commits his scripts to paper, this means he informally told it to Panahi, who scribbled it down.) Both directors prefer to work with amateur actors and to use first takes whenever possible; their approach emphasizes spontaneity and artlessness, and to Western audiences sated with contrivance and guile, films like Balloon are a tonic.
On its simplest narrative level, Balloon is refreshingly uncomplicated. Razieh (Aïda Mohammadkhani) is a 7-year-old girl intent on buying a fancy goldfish for New Year’s. A goldfish on the table is traditional for this non-Islamic holiday, which owes its original symbolism to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, but the girl’s mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) thinks the fish swimming in the family’s courtyard pond are sufficient. Razieh considers them too skinny and, she eventually explains, too gold. She has her eye on an exotic breed with elaborate fins, a gold head, and a body that’s mostly white (to Zoroastrians, the color of God).
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Her mother eventually relents and gives Razieh a 500-toman note, enough to buy five goldfish (or attend 10 movies, by her older brother Ali’s calculation). She’s to bring back the change, of course, but that’s assuming she can even make it through the hazards of Tehran’s bustling streets to the goldfish seller. At first, it seems she will lose the money immediately, when she stops to investigate the local snake charmers her parents have told her always to avoid. (“I wanted to see what was not good for me,” she later explains.) One of the snake charmers takes the bill and lets a serpent coil through it. Though not so bold as to actually grab it away, Razieh doesn’t back down, and eventually gets the money back.
Soon after, Razieh loses the bill again in a less dramatic incident. She lets it fall to the ground, and the breeze of a passing motorscooter blows it through a grate into the basement of a store already shuttered for New Year’s. Razieh enlists a variety of helpers, including Ali (Mohsen Kalifi), the tailor whose shop is next door, a lonely soldier from the provinces, and a young Afghan refugee who is selling balloons (including the one that provides the film’s title).
In the course of these humble events, Panahi suggests a lot more about life in Tehran than the story actually recounts. Ali bears a fresh bruise on his cheek, perhaps the result of a blow from the childrens’ demanding (but never seen) father. It’s unclear whether the soldier is a benign or threatening figure, and Razieh’s careful treatment of him indicates that she, at 7, already recognizes the potential dangers of being female in a patriarchal society. Generational conflict flares between the tailor and a young customer who insists that his new shirt’s collar has been made too big. The merest hint of the black market is raised by Razieh’s admission that her father has two jobs, but that she can only say what one of them is.
Though few American viewers will recognize the cast’s ethnic and regional diversity, there’s also a lot of talk about accents and remote points of origin. The soldier’s accent surprises Razieh, and the Afghan boy is revealed as a complete outsider, lost as this Islamic city celebrates a non-Islamic holiday. Though Panahi’s concerns are not as abstruse as his mentor’s, both share a gift for expressing much with the smallest of cinematic gestures.
Of course, Balloon is the tale of a little girl who wants a goldfish, and it’s remarkable as that, too; Razieh’s tenacity is reason enough to see the film. Like Kiarostami, though, Panahi builds casually to an unexpected final shot, and after Razieh has finally run off to purchase her white goldfish, there’s still a poignant moment with the character who’s been left behind. CP