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Wednesday, May 14, 2003
The unbearable silence of being in love
By KAORI SHOJI
Restrictions trigger longing and longing fuels love. This time-worn equation is redefined with unparalleled eloquence in "Baran," directed by the Iranian master Majid Majidi.
In a rare -- for Iranian cinema -- love story, Majidi explores such forbidden themes as sensuality, individualism, and male worship of feminine beauty. A boy falls in love with a girl, the girl is prevented from returning that love. Nevertheless, the boy does everything in his power to protect and help her from afar. They might never speak. They might never touch. And yet "Baran" (which means "rain" in Farsi) is charged with such intensity of emotion the impact of it rocks your very perception of what love is really all about.
Have you ever loved like this? Ever felt loved like this? In our modern, industrialized world, the answer is probably, increasingly, "no." We have too many options, distractions, maybe too much freedom. All of this may make for an interesting social system, but it doesn't necessarily provide an environment in which love can thrive. Love, as demonstrated in "Baran," blooms best in the harshest conditions, pushing up from under the scrabbiest bit of soil, defying all logic. And witnessing it leaves you astonished and humbled. Yes, this is love all right.
At first, it's hard to associate the emotion of love with Lateef (Hossein Abedini), the 17-year-old protagonist. Lateef works as a cook and errand-boy at a dusty Tehran construction site. He's an uncouth and lazy lad with a habit of whining to the supervisor, Memar (Mohammad Reza Naji), about his salary. He's the kind of boy to crack jokes at the misfortune of others and is totally insensitive to the plight of an Afghan refugee worker when he falls off a roof and breaks his legs. Memar packs the man off to a hospital, but he can't report the accident because hiring Afghan refugees is illegal. The injured worker has no choice but to return home and endure his fate in silence. But where's he going to get money? How can he buy food to survive? The next day, his teenage son, Rahmat, shows up for work instead of him. The kind Memar sees Rahmat is too young and frail to take on construction work and orders Lateef to give him the cook's job. Angered, Lateef tries to make life miserable for Rahmat until one day, he discovers the truth: Rahmat is a girl masquerading as a boy to save her father's job and put food on the table. From that day, Lateef transforms from vulgar oaf to adoring guardian angel. He devotes his entire existence into helping and watching over Rahmat, whose real name turns out to be Baran (Zahra Bahrami).
Does Baran know of Lateef's affections? It's not easy to tell, since she never says a word. The actress, Zahra Bahrami, was handpicked by Majidi in an Afghan refugee camp, situated on the mountainous border between Russia and Afghanistan. She hadn't ventured from this camp in all of her 15 years, let alone stood in front of a camera or consorted with men outside of her family. All of this comes across in her character -- Baran is intensely shy and protective of herself, cringing with fear when confronted by Lateef or Memar. But in no way can we perceive her as a victim of history and political fate. There's just so much dignity in her bearing, so much pride in her eyes. When Lateef initially bullies her by pulling pranks and destroying her kitchen work space, Baran neither complains or weeps. Methodically, she repairs the damage, then decorates the kitchen with fabric and a strand of ivy in a glass jar. Her cooking is praised by all the workers on the site and when she goes around distributing glasses of tea with sugar cubes, the gritty atmosphere on the desolate site perceptibly softens and cheers. Lateef observes all this and begins to mimic Baran's kind, gentle ways -- it's his way of bonding with her. Then abruptly, Baran leaves. The immigration authorities have tracked her down and she flees back to the refugee camp. Deprived of her presence, Lateef nearly loses his sanity. He desperately needs to see that she's all right, and begins to comb the countryside looking for her.
Lateef's selflessness is, perhaps, rooted in Iran's segregated society where the genders are not allowed to casually mix and have therefore preserved a mystery and formality long gone in the West. To Lateef, it would be sacrilegious to seek anything in return for his love. Lateef's gaze on Baran is that of a mortal witnessing a god, or an earthling confronted with a beautiful alien. Everything about her is exotic and precious to him, even if all that's visible of her is the face and the tips of her fingers, even though he has heard her voice just once, from a distance of about two meters. He wants her comfort and happiness so much his very soul aches with longing. "Baran" captures that longing and pins it onto the screen. It's so tangible you can almost reach out and touch it. Or even taste it -- that rare tang of first love untainted by sex or egotism that transforms a mere boy into a poet and a warrior.