I’m not in the movie-review game much anymore and don’t get to see as many foreign films as I used to.
But I have some very fond memories of my time as The Bee’s movie critic. Some of the hundreds upon hundreds of films I saw throughout the years have really stuck with me. One of them is Abbas Kiarostami’s tender Iranian 1995 film “The White Balloon,” which he wrote. It was my first exposure to the work of the famed filmmaker, who died July 4, and even though he didn’t direct the film – his longtime collaborator, Jafar Panahi, did – I still got hooked on his work.
Among my Kiarostami favorites: “Taste of Cherry” (1997, which was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes) and his later “Certified Copy” (2010).
I dug up my (ancient) review of “The White Balloon” and smiled at the story of a determined 7-year-old girl named Razieh who wants an expensively plump, shiny goldfish to help celebrate New Year’s. (It’s a tradition.) From my review:
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Money is tight in this working-class Iranian household. Yet Razieh whines and wheedles. Her mother 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.
… Some people, frankly, could find the simple story deadly dull.
Yet this film is remarkable for its clarity, drawing its power from the minor transactions of daily life.
In “Certified Copy,” made at a time in his career when Kiarostami made movies outside Iran, the French actress Juliette Binoche is his muse, and the result is sweet. I wrote: “Certified Copy” has two wonderful things going for it, and both are potent: Kiarostami’s playful authority; and Binoche’s radiant artistry. Without them both, it’s hard to imagine this souffle not collapsing.
Richard Brody, writing on newyorker.com, calls Kirostami – who died at the age of 76 – as “simply one of the most original and influential directors” in the history of cinema:
He achieved something that few filmmakers ever have: he seemed to create a national identity with his own cinematic style. He was the first Iranian filmmaker who expanded the history of cinema not merely in a sociological sense but in an artistic one, and his tenacious, bold, restless originality – an inventive audacity that carried through to his two last features, made outside of Iran – focussed the attention of the world on the Iranian cinema and opened the Iranian cinema to other directors who have followed his path.
A few follow-up thoughts: I somehow have never seen the film that Brody calls Kirostami’s masterpiece, the 1999 “The Wind Will Carry Us.” I’m putting that on my list right away.
And, I have to laugh at the idea of “grades” for movies and how arbitrary they can be. I’m shocked to realize I only gave “The White Balloon” a B+ grade when it is still so memorable to me. I can still visualize individual scenes. I remember the little girl’s perpetual frown – the crises she faces might seem insignificant to us but to her are enormous – suddenly dissolving into a sheer smile when she gazes at her plump goldfish in the bowl. It’s a reminder that a 7-year-old can experience pure joy that adults can only envy.
Yet I’m sure I gave “A” grades to films that have completely waved goodbye to my synapses. For sheer staying power, and the memory of this great filmmaker, I’m changing my grade retroactively to an A. Which makes absolutely no difference in the overall cinematic scheme of the universe, but it makes me feel a little better.