Whenever Alfred Hitchcock made an uncharacteristic picture that flopped, he’d “run for cover,” returning to more familiar territory. That’s pretty much what Iranian director Majid Majidi has done with “The Song of Sparrows,” which recycles the formula of “Children of Heaven,” “Baran” and “The Color of Paradise” after the misstep of the heavier, more labored “The Willow Tree.” It’s a touching tearjerker that’s also a celebration of traditional values as against the dehumanizing tendencies of modern urban life, and it relies for its effect on simple, homespun characters and scene-stealing children. The tendency to go for the heartstrings is insistent and the symbolism rather heavy-handed, but, like some of the Italian Neo-realist classics such as “Shoeshine” and “The Bicycle Thieves,” it still delivers a considerable emotional wallop.
The first part of the picture is set in a mountainous rural district outside Tehran, where Karim (Reza Naji), a gruff but loving husband to wife Narges (Maryam Akbari) and their three children, two daughters and a precocious young son, supports his family as a wrangler at an ostrich ranch. When one of the birds escapes, Karim is fired; and at the same time his older daughter’s hearing aid gets broken just before she’s to take her exams. When Karim drives off to the city on his motorbike to try to get it repaired, he’s mistaken for a cycle taxi man, and finds it a lucrative occupation, although the customers are sometimes rude and demanding. He’s also allowed to scavenge at a construction site, bringing home doors, window frames and even a new television antenna to his kids’ delight.
In the process, though, Karim finds himself acting increasingly selfish toward his neighbors, and his angry outbursts at the children—particularly Hussein (Hamed Aghazi), who’s joined forces with a bunch of his pals to clean the sludge from a nearby water storage shed so that they can fill it with fish and “become millionaires”—grow more and more intense. It takes an accident to make him appreciate his old life and the religious and moral principles he’d been losing.
There’s no denying that “The Song of Sparrows” is shamelessly manipulative, just as “Children of Heaven,” “Baran” and “The Color of Paradise” were. But though it’s not their equal, it’s hard to complain about being manipulated when Majidi does it with such feeling and visual poetry. It would take a hard heart indeed to resist the sight of Hussein and his pals scurrying about to earn money by delivering plants or running away when Karim confronts them, and though a later sequence in which the boys’ faces are photographed straight-on as their dream is threatened could easily be dismissed as emotional overkill, it still works. The use of the ostriches as the symbol of traditional values, moreover, can be called contrived, but the beauty of the sequences in which Majidi shows them frolicking against the sandy hills (as well as the humor of the one in which Karim disguises himself as a bird to try to lure his lost charge out of hiding) disarm criticism.
The casting is impeccable. Naji, with a weathered visage that can register rage, joy, befuddlement and pain with equal skill, makes a protagonist worthy of De Sica, and he easily carries the film on his broad shoulders. The supporting cast is fine across the board, but Majidi once again shows his special aptitude with child actors, especially little Aghazi as Hussein, a devilish scamp with a perfectly angelic face. And cinematographer Tooraj Mansoouri is another star, managing to capture the contrast between the gorgeous, free countryside and the coarse, densely-populated city in images both realistic and haunting. The spare score by Hossein Alizadeh is another virtue.
“The Song of Sparrows” could easily have collapsed in mawkishness. But like Majidi’s earlier films, it avoids the trap; for the most part it’s touching rather than cloying, with even the most obvious moments saved by an underlying sweetness and poignancy. It’s a song worth listening to.