Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Headmaster God

A few thoughts on The Song of Sparrows

Once, when asked about his principles for reviewing different types of movie, Roger Ebert said- and I rephrase- that he liked to review a movie based on what it set out to do than his ideas of how it should have been done. If I had to rate Majid Majidi's The Song of Sparrows for how successful its execution is based upon its intentions, I have to admit its a wonderfully made film. The acting is beautiful, the tempo and tone sway gently between comic and melodramatic, the film is lyrically shot and the director delivers on what he promised early on- a fable. The one thought that kept coming to me throughout the duration of the film is its fable like quality, with immediate and reconcilable repercussions to actions good and bad, and its self-righteous moral compass. No matter how complicated things are or how messy situations get, salvation is one step away to be grabbed with perseverance and sincerity. Majidi is a master of film language and the film which is simple-minded yet liberating in its earnestness in his able hands, would have been contrived and pontifical in a lesser filmmaker's hands.

The story is that of a good-natured family man, Karim, who lives in the outskirts of a metropolis with his loving wife and three children, working in an Ostrich farm. He is a sincere, hard-working man but has more or less an hand-to-mouth existence. Right in the beginning, one of the ostriches runs away and after an episode of wry humour, he loses his job and fathoms the burden of his existence when his teenage daughter loses her hearing aid and needs a new one soon enough. Yet, for an honest and industrious man, deliverance is not far away and he realises he can make a lot more money in the city than he ever could have in the village. His travails in the city are beautifully captured by Majidi and his cinematographer, Turaj Mansuri, while Hossein Alizadeh's delicate score underlines Karim's droll experiences of discovering urban spaces. Meanwhile, his animated and entrepreneurially inclined son Hossein, keeps doing things that question his patriarchal outlook. Having formed the base, from then on the film keeps throwing at Karim a series of moral questions, rewarding him for choosing the right thing or punishing for succumbing to temptation, eventually guiding him to salvation.

That was about the film. It definitely is not a bad film, and if I didn't feel so uncomfortable with the writer's and the director's outlook towards life, I might even have been elated with the ending. But my opinions and philosophies are drastically different from that of the filmmaker and though I understand that he is entitled to his opinions and beliefs as much as I'm entitled to mine, it couldn't stop me from feeling that the film's message was way too simplistic and dogmatic. It is a very religious film, and not just in the conventional way about human spirit, but also in its recurring pointers to an omniscient, omnipotent God who acts like a stern but just headmaster. The following are a few religious/moral indicators I got from the film:

1. You get what you deserve- When the man buys the fruit with the money he didn't deserve, the fruit slips away into the stream. But the money he earned with sweat, bears the sweetest fruit ( Literally too and the scene where he chews fruit while smugly looking at his neighbours' rickety antennas is priceless ).

2. God will throw you out of your comfortable zone just so that you realize how kind he has been to you all along and the moment your faith is reinstated, he reaps you with rewards again- Till the day the ostrich ran away, Karim had a self-sufficient existence and things were going steady for him to push God into the background. When that incident jolted him out of the stupor, and he got lucky with the Bike Taxi, almost immediately he thanked God with his prayers.

3. Greed is bad- This point is handed pretty bluntly with both the father and the son 'learning their lessons'. As soon as Karim starts getting greedy and stops sharing with his neighbours, he is knocked down until he is at their mercy. And Hussein who wants to be a millionaire fast and dreams wildly, has his dream shattered with the fishes needed to be thrown away. As I saw it, as long as you are God fearing and want to progress slowly under his shadow, you will. But the moment you consider yourself powerful enough to shape your fate, God will knock you down. ( This part, for me, has an uncanny resemblance with Kieslowski's Dekalog I ). Also, Ramezan seems to have such an contended life because he keeps saying and truly believes in 'Insha'Allah'.

4. Resist Temptation- God will always test your diligence in upholding the moral code, and lest you slip, you will have to suffer until you learn. He is always trying to nudge you in the right direction but do you have it in you to curb your desires? Evident from the scene where Karim plans to sell the refrigerator, yet is reminded of doing the right thing when he sees the ostriches in the truck, and is duly rewarded in the next scene for his integrity.

5. Do not look down upon others- The cousin he did not want to give the door to helps his family in dire need and the family's side business that he frowned upon, generates income and feeds him when he is unable to.

Those, broadly, are the major religious principles that I felt the filmmaker was trying to convey through the film. This film is not spiritual, like a Kubrick or a Mallick, but religious in its every frame like a Scorsese. All this apart, the film is endearing and deeply felt. Reza Naji is brilliant as Karim, not just because of his rugged features and believabilty as an outdoor man ( he was astonishingly 66 when playing the role of this 40- year old man ), but for bringing to the film a searing honesty which makes us empathise with the man so easily. Hamid Aghazi is supremely natural as Hossein and the scenes with the father and the children are the most heart-warming ( I love the way Naji keeps yelling, "What's all this fuss about?", both enjoying his fatherhood but also being exasperated for not getting a moment of silence ).

Finally, conventional religious teachings apart, when in the end Karim sings 'The world is like a dream' and the crying kids cheer up, I felt Majidi was hinting at something resembling Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence but pertaining to a single lifetime of the relentless cycle of Joy and Sorrow. Even within the framework of the film, characters find themselves in a problem ( Missing Ostrich, Money to buy Fish ), stumble upon a solution ( Bike Taxi, Selling the roses ), find things to be going fine and attain happiness only to be thrown into another problem ( Crash and Fracture, Throwing Away the Fish ) to being content with what they have now ( Finding the Ostrich and Returning to Village Life, Starting off with the one surviving Fish ); Ad infinitum. So, at the same time the story talks about discovery and salvation after a period of catharsis, there seems to be no end to this cycle. Not atleast till liberation. But what if even liberation too is a part of the cycle?