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Movie Review

A Heartfelt Look at Afghan Immigrants

'Baran' blends warmth and humor in a tale that examines the plight of undocumented workers in Tehran.

December 07, 2001|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Majid Majidi's "Baran," Iran's Oscar entry for best foreign film, strikes two chords in its eloquent depiction of the plight of illegal immigrants everywhere and that of the more than 1 million Afghans living in Iran since the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Majidi's "Children of Heaven," the first-ever Oscar-nominated Iranian film, and "The Color of Paradise" established the filmmaker's international reputation, and "Baran" (Rain) represents his growth as a masterful screen storyteller now free of the aura of manipulation that marred the two previous films.

The darkly glowing "Baran" brings an irresistible blend of warmth and humor and a consistent embracing humanity in the face of life's harshness. There is a rich organic quality to this graceful, even lyrical film, a sense of rightness that makes it seem natural.

On a construction site in Tehran, a large building is going up, adding to a crowded array of recent construction at the base of the mountains that form a dramatic backdrop to the city. It is a substantial structure in which a steel framework is being filled in with walls of hollow bricks.

The construction boss, Memar (Mohammad Reza Naji), employs a substantial number of Afghans without papers for the familiar reasons: They work harder for less pay than their Iranian counterparts. Memar is a man of firm decency whose bark is worse than his bite and who views the Afghans compassionately despite his countrymen's occasional displays of resentment toward them. At the first sign of the arrival of a government inspector, the Afghan workers rush into hiding.

Latif (Hossein Abedini), an Iranian of Turkish descent, is a bit full of himself and mischievous. As the tea boy and cook for the crew, he has it comparatively easy, and Memar tends to indulge his antics. Then one day an Afghan worker, a recent widower with five children, breaks his foot in a fall and faces a long layoff. One of his co-workers, Soltan (Hossein Rahimi), a middle-aged Afghan with a silvery beard, urges Memar to take on the injured worker's young son, Rahmat, in his place. When it becomes clear that Rahmat is not strong enough to sling sacks of cement on his back and carry them up stairs, Memar, who is momentarily irritated at Latif and regards Rahmat kindly, orders them to switch jobs, much to Latif's fury.

Rahmat proves a success in the galley, and the Iranian and Afghan workers are delighted. Meanwhile, Latif's resentment simmers as he gives the boy a hard time until he catches a glimpse of Rahmat that confirms the viewer's suspicion: that Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami) is no boy but a teenage girl. In a beautifully sustained moment, actor and director collaborate perfectly as Latif's wordless expression of shock melts into guilt and then love and yearning.

Thus begins "Baran's" real story--a love story--of how Latif is transformed by love and how it propels him on a course of action that requires an extraordinary series of selfless gestures. At this point suspense kicks in about what fate holds for Latif and the girl, who is actually named "Baran."

"Baran" is a superlative work, offering a rich emotional experience that at the same time calls attention to the seemingly endless suffering of the Afghan people. Majidi has shown that the best way to involve audiences in social injustice and political issues is through the heart.

*

MPAA rating: PG, for language and brief violence. Times guidelines: The film is too harsh for small children but is suitable for mature older children.

'Baran' (Rain)

Hossein Abedini...Latif

Zahra Bahrami...Rahmat

Mohammad Reza Naji...Memar

Hossein Rahimi...Soltan

A Miramax presentation. Writer-director Majid Majidi. Producers Majid Majidi and Fouad Nahas. Screenplay consultant Fouad Nahas. Cinematographer Mohammad Davudi. Editor Hassan Hassandust. Music Ahmad Pejman. Costumes Behzad Kazzazi, Malek Jahan Khazai. Art director Behzad Kazzazi. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall through Thursday, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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