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BARAN (RAIN)

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This new film from Majid Majidi, director of the marvelous “Children of Heaven” (1999) and “The Color of Paradise” (2000), is a tale of unrequited love and maturation so emotionally pure that it seems effortlessly moving, a picture of rare poignancy and surprising depth. It’s also visually entrancing: the images are gritty yet dreamlike, and often possess a hint of real poetry. “Baran” is modest, even fragile, but it’s easily the most affecting piece of its kind since Zhang Yimou’s exquisitely simple, radiant “The Road Home,” and, along with that picture, it puts to shame the simpering, phony romances that Hollywood churns out with such depressing regularity. In the process, moreover, it touches upon issues of political and social significance lightly but incisively. In short, it’s a simple but remarkably affecting little picture.

The narrative is spare but profound at the same time. An Iranian teenager, Lateef (Hossein Abedini), works at a construction site as general factotum to the boss, gruff but kindly Memar (Mohammad Reza Naji), who’s taken him on–we later learn–as a favor to the youth’s rural family. Memar employs Afghan refugees among his workers–something that’s illegal (government inspectors turn up periodically to check) but financially astute, since the desperate men will work for very low wages. When Najaf (Gholam Ali-Bakhshi), one of the Afghans, is injured on the job, his friend Soltan (Hossein Rahimi) brings the incapacitated fellow’s son Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami) to take his place. The youngster proves not to be up to the physical strain of the construction work, however, so Memar gives him Lateef’s job, assigning the latter to the building crew instead. The furious Lateef abuses Rahmat, sabotaging his replacement’s efforts at every turn, until he discovers that the “boy” is in fact Najaf’s daughter Baran in disguise. He’s immediately smitten with her and, out of both affection and guilt, assumes the role of her protector and admirer–though only from a distance, since, it appears, thegeneral Iranian attitude toward Afghans is one of condescension (if not outright contempt), while Afghan women are extraordinarily discreet and bound by tradition. What follows is a graceful, but timid and halting, sort of romantic dance as Lateef seeks to help Baran and her family, sacrificing all his resources and energy to show his love for a girl whom he cannot possibly possess in any physical sense. In the process he grows from boy to man, putting aside pettiness and learning compassion for those even less fortunate than he is. At the end the film achieves a moment of near transcendence when Lateef and Baran have a final encounter in which the affection between them is palpable but can be expressed only through the simplest of gestures.

“Baran” is a quiet, meditative piece, lacking the big moments and overdrawn histrionics that western filmmakers would thoughtlessly lard into such a narrative. It treats its characters with both honesty and dignity, creating a sense of place and mood that seems totally real, even during episodes imbued with a shimmering, surrealistic glow. The cast responds with performances that, while straightforward, radiate with an inner fire. And, as usual, Majidi captures the Iranian environment, with its combination of matter-of-factness and looming danger, with unerring skill. As with his previous films, he’s created a world that, while unfamiliar to American eyes, seems palpably authentic, and then has situated within it a story of universal scope, played out with delicacy and deep feeling. The result is a picture that cloaks its craftsmanship in a wonderful guilelessness, so that one easily forgives its gentle emotional manipulation. It’s another jewel–slight but still lustrous–in the crown of modern Iranian cinema.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND

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One could deal with “A Beautiful Mind” rather cavalierly by remarking that it’s one of the two best films Ron Howard has made. The problem is that’s not saying much. The only previous Howard picture of any particular distinction was “Apollo 13” (1995), a solid, professional piece in almost every respect. “Mind” is better than that. It’s not only intelligently conceived and smoothly crafted, but also manages to be emotionally resonant without degenerating into mawkishness. Marked by a performance from Russell Crowe which is also the equal of his best work–in “The Insider,” not “Gladiator”–the film is both moving and intellectually stimulating.

“A Beautiful Mind” might be described as a kinder, gentler version of “Shine” (and, it must be added, a better one, too). It’s based on the life of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who had to confront serious mental problems on the way to winning the Nobel Prize in 1994. We first encounter Nash as an introverted incoming graduate student at Princeton in 1947. He has difficulties in both his studies with Professor Helinger (Judd Hirsch) and his interpersonal relationships, but is kept roughly on track by his hard-living, extroverted roommate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany). He ultimately writes a brilliant thesis revising Adam Smith’s economic theory (it’s this work that eventually wins him the Nobel), and wins a position at MIT, where his code-breaking genius attracts the attention of a shadowy government operative, William Parcher (Ed Harris), who enlists him in unraveling a renegade Soviet nuclear conspiracy against the U.S. Nash also attracts the attention of another person–lovely student Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly), whom he courts in his ungainly way and who shortly becomes his wife. In time, however, Nash’s work for Parcher puts him into danger; there are hints of Russian killers on his trail. It’s at this point that a psychiatrist (Christopher Plummer) enters the picture. It may be that Nash is actually being tormented by enemy agents; or it may be that a part of his life is delusional hallucination. (The picture succeeds in keeping viewers uncertain for a long time about which is the case, and even after a diagnosis is rendered, questions persist about what precisely is real and what not.)

It’s easy to imagine how this story could have been told prosaically in movie-of-the-week fashion. But Howard and scripter Akiva Goldsman treat it far more imaginatively, cannily employing ambiguity and atmosphere to keep it genuinely compelling. By shifting from Nash’s perspective to those of others, the makers keep the audience in suspense as long as possible while generating enormous sympathy for the central character. All the effort of writing and direction would count for little, however, were it not for Crowe’s extraordinary lead performance. From his first appearance as a fumbling but arrogant student through his final scenes as an elderly man reconnecting with academia, Crowe is pitch-perfect, wringing the last ounce of emotion out of Nash’s fragile psyche without turning him into a sappy caricature; it’s a mannered turn, to be sure, especially toward the close when a lot of makeup is involved, but the mannerisms are always kept within strict limits and used to good effect. The film doesn’t ask nearly as much from anyone else, but Harris is smoothly effective as a secretive spook, Hirsch suitably stuffy as Helinger, and Connelly radiant as Nash’s wife and support. Bettany, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Josh Lucas are all excellent as Nash’s friends, colleagues and rivals–Lucas is especially impressive, since his character must turn credibly from unsympathetic to the opposite– and Plummer brings his air of enigmatic suavity to the role of Dr. Rosen. (He played off well against Crowe, of course, in “The Insider,” too.) There’s also a nifty cameo turn by Austin Pendeleton as a likable fellow sent by the Nobel committee to investigate Nash’s sanity–an interview which leads to an uplifting incident in the faculty dining room which stays just on the right side of the maudlin.

One doesn’t want to reveal too much about the twists and turns of “A Beautiful Mind,” because doing so would spoil the pleasurable surprises the picture will hold for viewers who come to it fresh and unsuspecting. Suffice it to say that a narrative that could easily have degenerated into a disease of the week movie entitled “Learning to Live With Schizophrenia” (indeed, the only major problem with the film is the suggestion that the affliction is a condition that can be controlled by reason and determination alone–something that families of sufferers will emphatically deny) instead becomes a powerfully affecting piece, filled with honest emotion rather than cheap sentiment. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that proves that Ron Howard has matured into a director of real substance, one who can put Hollywood slickness at the service of a story of poignancy and depth. This “Mind” is beautiful indeed.