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Iranian director Majid Majidi has made some of the most visually stunning and emotionally stirring films in world cinema about the plight of under-privileged, exploited and abused young people, and Sun Children (Khorshid) is one of his very best. The story of street boys commissioned by a local boss to dig for a treasure unfolds around an urban schoolyard and the clever, freckled face of 12-year-old Ali (Roohollah Zamani), a stereotype-buster of non-stop courage. The movie won best film, best screenplay and best production design kudos at this year’s Fajr Film Festival and should be a frontrunner in Venice competition.
Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1998) was the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language category. Though Sun Children lacks the visual lushness and poetry that made Children of Heaven so seductive, its condemnation of child labor and the inaccessibility of basic education to the poor comes across with great force. It quotes the statistic that there are 152 million children in the world obliged to work to support their families. Here they are represented by non-professional actors who really live on the streets, a compulsively watchable cast whose weary stoicism leaves room for moments of humor and tenderness.
Post-revolutionary Iranian films have often drawn from the well of children’s problems to outflank the censors and score their social critiques. The screenplay written by Majidi and co-scripter Nima Javidi (Melbourne) pins its outrage to a swift-moving, high-stakes plot that undercuts sentimentality and the conventions of the exploited-child genre. Events are seen through the uncomplaining eyes of young Ali, a tireless mini-boss who directs his his gang — Reza, Maman and the small Afghan boy Abolfazi — in petty crimes at the behest of a neighborhood don. The story opens on their breathless escape from an underground parking lot, where they are stealing tires from a new Mercedes. Later, Ali attempts another perilous escape over the rooftops, but is caught and delivered to the elderly boss.
Instead of a beating, Ali is instructed to take his boys and enroll in the Sun School, a charitable institution for working kids whose teachers hope to get them off the streets and send the most talented ones on to high school or a football club. The school is so poor and under-funded, Ali has to plead and fight to get them in. Yet unlike most officials in Iranian films, the teachers here aren’t cold-hearted bureaucrats but idealistic educators, and one of them in particular (the fine Javad Ezati) keeps protective watch over Ali and his friends. In a lovely scene of right-thinking action, he accompanies Ali and Abolfazi to rescue the latter’s sister Zahra when she’s arrested for selling trinkets in the subway. When the teacher sees what they have done to her, he’s so outraged he head-butts the jailer. When he drives the girl home, the camera lingers on a chilling slum where Afghan families live on top of each other around a concrete courtyard.
Ali, whose mobile face is lined with a permanent worried expression, is concerned about Zahra but also about his mother, who has been committed to a psychiatric institution after a severe trauma. His desire to get her out of the hospital motivates his desperate work. His brief is to find an underground tunnel that leads under the cemetery next door, where he is to look for a lost but unspecified treasure. Excusing himself from class with a stomachache, he slips away and bravely descends a staircase leading to a cobwebby storage space in the foundations of the building. Ignoring his fear, he resolutely starts digging in the dark sub-basement with a simple pickaxe.
These action scenes are filmed like a classic prison-break movie, and the excitement and danger mount as the boys excavate a long narrow tunnel that only they can fit into. Never giving in to exhaustion or defeat, Ali cleverly overcomes the obstacles that arise underground, even borrowing an electric drill from the boss to push through rock and mortar until the ceiling starts shaking. When he finally breaks through to an underground waterway, he sees his goal within reach. The sheer joy and expectation on Zamani’s young face is heartbreaking.
Production company: Majid Majidi Film Production
Cast: Roohollah Zamani, Ali Ghabeshi, Shamila Shirzad, Javad Ezati, Ali Nassirian,
Abolfazi Shirzad, Mohammad Mahdi Mousavifar, Mani Ghafouri
Director: Majid Majidi
Screenwriters: Nima Javidi, Majid Majidi
Producers: Amir Banan, Majid Majidi
Director of photography: Hooman Behmanesh
Production designer: Keyvan Moghaddam
Costume designer: Amir Malekpour
Editor: Hassan Hassandoost
Music: Ramin Kousha
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Celluloid Dreams
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