This story was originally published on May 18, 1996.
It’s wise to plan some decompression time before seeing “The White Balloon.” This gentle tale is so much at odds with fast-paced modern life – not to mention fast-paced modern films – that it’s something of a shock.
Without preparation – or at least a few deep soul-cleansing breaths – it could be hard to fall into this film’s delicate, hypnotic web.
Some people, frankly, could find the simple story deadly dull.
Yet this Iranian film, in Farsi with English subtitles, is remarkable for its clarity, drawing its power from the minor transactions of daily life.
It received the 1995 Camera D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.
“White Balloon” is set in Teheran as the spring New Year’s celebration approaches. The action unfolds in real time. Most people are preparing for the holiday. Yet 7-year-old Razieh (Aida Mohammakhani) is in a funk. She wants a plump, shiny goldfish for the celebration. (It’s a tradition to have a bowl of water containing an odd number of goldfish, symbolizing harmonious relations between men and women.)
No matter that the family has perfectly good goldfish in the courtyard pool. Razieh wants an expensive one from the shop down the road.
“It’s as though they’re dancing when they move their fins, “ she says with wide eyes.
Money is tight in this working-class Iranian household. Yet Razieh whines and wheedles. Her mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) finally gives in. Any parent who has been beaten down in the name of the latest “hot” Christmas toy will sympathize.
Razieh sets off by herself, money in hand, to buy the goldfish. And the world gets tough on her.
There is temptation to avoid, in the form of a grizzled snake charmer. And a series of crises to manage, including dropping the money down a street grate, then trying to get it out with the help of her brother (Mohsen Kalifi).
Mohammakhani’s Razieh is the picture of innocence: white scarf, frilly blouse, red polka-dotted skirt, pink bows on her shoes. She spends much of the film with a deep frown. The crises she faces might be small to an adult, but in her mind, they are enormous.
The frown sometimes melts into a smile, though, as in one memorable scene when she gazes at her plump goldfish in the bowl. It’s a reminder than a 7- year-old can experience pure joy that adults can only envy.
It would be tempting to describe this as simply a children’s film. Yet director Jafar Panahi uses the eyes of a child to illuminate the foibles – and the humanity – of adults.
Each adult who crosses Razieh’s path - snake charmer, shopkeeper, kindly old lady – has his or her own quirks. Yet they are good people. They might bicker and fuss, but they care – and they help Razieh.
That’s what makes “White Balloon” such a peaceful experience.
The White Balloon
Starring Aida Mohammadkhan. Written by Abbas Kiarostami. Directed by Jafar Panahi. An October Films release. 1 hour, 25 minutes. UA Northgate. No MPAA rating (Bee rating: G). Grade: B+