The God of Small Details 

The engrossing 'Color of Paradise' shows the strength of the current Iranian cinema

The engrossing 'Color of Paradise' shows the strength of the current Iranian cinema

The Color of Paradise

dir. Majid Majidi

PG, 88 min.

Now showing at Green Hills

The art of cinema is meant to be the combination of words and images, but too often we get a surplus of the former at the expense of the latter. Not so in the recent cinema of Iran, where characters tend to speak briefly and directly about their problems, often just enough so that the viewer can understand the story. The rest of the film is filled in by near-silent pictures—an approach that has audiences studying the frame intensely and looking more deeply at the simplest actions of the figures onscreen. In the case of writer-director Majid Majidi’s latest film The Color of Paradise, careful study has us getting thoroughly engrossed in the characters’ most minute dramas. We get caught up in the meaning of daily routines, and we even worry over what might happen when that routine is shattered.

Like Majidi’s previous movie—the sweetly uplifting Children of HeavenThe Color of Paradise centers on a small boy. Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani), the blind son of a rural farmer, has just finished his first year at a special school in Teheran and is heading home for the summer. He’s looking forward to spending time with his two sisters and his grandmother, and applying what he’s learned about the nature of God to life in his lush mountain collective. Specifically, Mohammad has become fascinated with the intricate sounds of birds (which he is certain are some kind of divine communication), and in the textures of the ground (which he reads with his fingers, as though God had written His message in Braille on a stalk of wheat).

Mohammad’s father, though, is less than dazzled by his son’s maturation. The old man is a widower, taking care of his mother and three children, none of whom are useful to him as an heir. Also, Father is planning to remarry, and he’s concerned that the family of the woman he’s courting will see his handicapped son as a sign that God has cursed him. Unable to see the blessings of his fertile community and loving family, Mohammad’s father is instead haunted by the unholy sounds that he hears in the woods—sounds that may be indicators of his own ill fate.

There’s a simplicity to this story that borders on the prosaic—the son is legally blind, but the father is spiritually blind, etc. In Majidi’s hands, though, the tale is stripped of false sentiment and is instead instilled with profound, almost elemental significance. The majority of The Color of Paradise is devoted to Mohammad’s connection to nature, but this is really a movie about his father, who feels burdened by the son who shares the name of the prophet of Islam. Does he then also feel burdened by the faith of his people?

Majidi’s uncomplicated shooting style, which focuses on purposeful motion in a deliberately moving frame, makes his films both easy to follow and thoroughly engrossing. And though this film is less bright than Children of Heaven, it’s still “family friendly,” which means that a parent could take an older child to the film; not only would neither be bored, but the after-show conversation about the manifestations of God might be fruitful indeed. It’s enough to make one wonder why the Trinity Broadcasting Network is wasting millions of dollars on dopey, oblique action films like The Omega Code, when there’s clearly a way to make meaningful moral movies without flashy special effects. All you need is a human face and the patience to watch it react.

—Noel Murray

Goodnight, Irene

The Farrelly brothers may be victims of their own success. Peter and Bobby Farrelly began their careers as writers and ventured into directing, they say, only to make sure that their scripts weren’t mishandled. Starting with Dumb and Dumber in 1994, and culminating with the smash There’s Something About Mary last year, the Farrellys have become auteurs against their wills, championed by no less an influential figure than Roger Ebert.

Me, Myself & Irene is based on an old script that the Farrellys brought down from the attic and dusted off. It’s not topically out of date, but the small-town, small-time sensibility it betrays is worlds away from Mary’s bright lights and California dreams. The comedic hook is schizophrenia—fittingly so, for a movie straddling the fence between dialogue and sight gags, New England and Hollywood, big money and lowbrow culture.

Me, Myself & Irene has a high concept that would be at home in a ’40s series comedy, something like Abbott and Costello Meet Jekyll and Hyde. Charlie Baileygates (Jim Carrey), the Dudley Do-Right of the Rhode Island State Highway Patrol, is a nice guy whom everyone takes advantage of. When he can’t take it anymore, his repressed alter ego Hank, who’s been storing up all that anger, takes over. Along for the travelogue as a love interest is Irene (Renée Zellweger), a golf course superintendent involved in some unwitting and undefined criminal activity.

The stars, usually a movie’s biggest asset, are Me, Myself & Irene’s biggest liabilities. Jim Carrey would seem to be a natural to play two personalities in one body; he has the ability to switch emotional affect instantly, like a light turning on and off. But what’s missing is a “real” character to whom we can attach our sympathies. One reason There’s Something About Mary’s constant wackiness didn’t grate on the viewer was Ben Stiller, who conveyed a believable sense of longing, hurt, and frustration. Carrey’s main character, Charlie, is supposed to have that same appeal, but Carrey is such a chameleon that he can’t create anyone who might have some real feelings.

And Renée Zellweger, bless her heart, just isn’t right. She’s supposed to be a ditzy blonde, but she comes across as more lost than lovably scattered. Somewhere inside the Irene character, as Zellweger plays her, is a personality disorder much more serious than Charlie’s: She doesn’t know who she is, and she’s impossible to love.

Like Outside Providence, another ancient Farrelly property that got turbocharged after Mary, this film is rooted in the brothers’ upbringing in Rhode Island. But the local flavor and the do-it-yourself incompetence of the Farrellys’ filmmaking clash with the big stars and monstrous publicity that Fox attaches to their projects. If some forward-thinking executive would assign experienced sound designers, editors, cinematographers, and, yes, even directors to the Farrellys, they might be able to turn their muddled comic vision into a coherent reality. Having backed into doing it all themselves, however, they’re doomed by their own in-spite-of-it-all success.

—Donna Bowman

Hal Christiansen, 1933-2000

There was a time, not so far away as you might think, when most every small town in America had somebody like Hal Christiansen. I take that back: People like Hal Christiansen are hard to come by. But towns across the country had a scrappy independent movie house that reflected the tastes, spirit, and personality of its owner and manager. In Murfreesboro, from the 1970s into the early ’90s, that theater was the Cinema One (later Cinema Twin). And the man who booked the movies, tore your ticket, and greeted you at the door was Hal Christiansen.

Christiansen, who died last week in Murfreesboro after a long, cruel illness, was a strapping former Marine with a handshake that could crush ice. For many years, he was the tallest person I’d ever seen. He stood well above 6 feet, with a shock of Nordic blond hair and shoulders as wide as a doorway. He looked as if a wrecking ball couldn’t budge him. And yet he loved movies, books, music, and theater. For the Murfreesboro paper and Nashville magazine, he wrote columns about everything from jazz drumming to the latest films.

In 1973, he and his wife Nancy acted on their love of movies: They opened the Cinema One, a huge deal in Murfreesboro. It had rocking-chair seats, a novelty that dazzled my brother and me. The first movie was Richard Lester’s slapstick remake of The Three Musketeers, and every time people laughed you’d see ripples of bobbing heads as the chairs dipped. Cinema One subsisted for years on blockbusters like Jaws and Young Frankenstein. In between, Mr. Christiansen would sometimes use their success to book specialty films like Fellini’s Amarcord. Whatever came through bore the stamp of his curiosity.

The best part, though, was that Mr. Christiansen was interested in all kinds of movies, and he was happy to discuss them with anyone, kid or grown-up. I didn’t go to film school; I went to the movies every weekend, and Mr. Christiansen was the closest thing I had to a teacher. He would point out what he liked about certain directors, like Brian De Palma or Woody Allen, and I began to pick up on the things he talked about. In high school, my friends were as geeky about movies as I was, but he never treated us like the nuisances we probably were. Any friend of film was worthy of respect.

The Christiansens were among the last independent theater operators in the state when they sold the Cinema Twin to another maverick, the Franklin Cinema’s Rusty Gordon, in the early ’90s. From Hal Christiansen, patrons learned that a movie theater was more than a place that took your money and offered images in trade; it was a social hub, a community center, sometimes even a salon. In so doing, he taught people to think of movies as something more than commodities, more even than art. They were constant realms of possibility, of seeing the world in different ways.

It’s hard to think of someone as vital as Hal Christiansen in the past tense, and harder still to remember him without smiling. He had a broad grin, a deep rich chuckle, and a sneaky wit; he used to tiptoe up behind one friend at the ATM they both frequented and seize her purse. Yet he encouraged people in a million ways, some little, some huge. When I was 13, I started writing movie reviews for a now defunct Murfreesboro weekly. One weekend afternoon I arrived at Cinema One, and a package was waiting for me at the box office. Inside was something he thought I should have: a paperback copy of Pauline Kael’s Reeling. It finally fell apart while I was in college, and even then I kept some of the pages. Hal Christiansen is one of the reasons I write about movies, and they won’t be the same without him.

—Jim Ridley


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