Grade: A-

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.