The Iranian films that make their way into our cinemas tend to have a neo-realist formality to them, usually depicting the ravages of poverty, basic human feeling, and the emotional wake which follows their collision. This predictable contingent of Iranian film can be trying or lyrically affecting, depending on one's mood. Regardless, even the slowest and most manipulative films of modern Iranian neorealism provide a valuable reminder of elemental storytelling and a lifestyle half a world away. Majid Majidi's Baran employs often simplistic effects and patient skill to depict a bit of basic social truth and tell a smart, modest coming-of-age tale.
Though the title points the way to the film's central obsession, the leading character is Lateef, a teenage Afghani construction worker prone to getting in scraps. Memar, the site foreman, sympathizes with the struggling population of Afghan refugees (estimated at 1.5 million before the fall of the Taliban) and employs many illegally; to the workers, I.D. cards are rare and precious. An injury has sidelined one worker, Najaf, so a friend brings his son to work for him. That son, Rahmat (or as we later learn, Baran) necessarily hides a secret: he is a she. When Rahmat ends up with Lateef's cushy job (forcing Lateef to work harder), the surly boy gets nasty; when Lateef discovers Rahmat is a girl, the young man's fancy turns to love.
Majidi's rich characterization highlights the tensions between Iranians and Iraqis, as well as the giving gestures made by a select few. Lateef's own transformation emerges, subtly, from the influence of Memar, who acts as a kind of patriarch to the misfit Afghani family that develops in his employ. Majidi wisely counters his optimistic strokes with harsh realities and an appropriately small amount of cutting humor. At one point, Majidi pulls off the kind of line that became insufferably precious in American films of the nineties: in one of his comically volatile moods, Memar asks Lateef, "Since when are you a movie hero?"
Baran's best virtues are Majidi's economic uses of sight and sound, reminiscent of European films of the late 60s and early 70s. His camera placement and movement are expert (zooms and overhead shots are carefully placed for quiet narrative effect), while his use of heightened sound turns surreal soundscapes into momentary mindscapes. The undulating roar of a storm or the pounding of the construction site mirror states of mind or heart. Rocks dropping on a riverbank transform into sounds of war terror.
Like Majidi's earlier films (The Color of Paradise, Children of Heaven), Baran manipulates and--during a third act journey--begins to lag. But for the most part, the story unfolds with careful brilliance to its quiet conclusion. Coming of age in Iran means an awakening to horrible economic and social truths, but also heralds love and, hopefully, the maturity to help one another pick up the pieces. The potent final image, suggested by the title ("Baran" means "rain"), is one of the willful surrender of self to another.