By Heidi Noroozy
You know that poverty is truly desperate when a child’s most treasured possession is her single pair of shoes.
This is the premise of Children of Heaven, the 1997 movie written and directed by the Iranian filmmaker, Majid Majidi. It was the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. (Last year’s A Separation was the first to actually win the Oscar.) Children of Heaven tells the story of nine-year-old Ali, who loses his little sister’s pretty pink shoes on the way home from the cobbler, where he’s taken them for repairs.
“How can I go to school without shoes,” his sister, Zahra, asks when he confesses his carelessness.
Ali is a resourceful boy, though, and he comes up with a plan. Since Zahra goes to school in the morning and Ali in the afternoon, they will share his well-worn sneakers. Zahra wears the shoes for the first half of the day then races home and quickly hands them over so Ali can dash off to his own class. It’s like a two-person relay race through the narrow, cobblestone alleys of South Tehran, driven by necessity, not the hope of a medal.
The first few days, Ali is late, with increasingly dire consequences. The first time the headmaster catches the boy sneaking up the stairs to his classroom, he reprimands him. The second time, he sends him home with instructions to bring his father back to school the next day.
Too proud to tell the headmaster the truth of his circumstances, Ali will do almost anything to avoid being sent home. Not only would it mean missing class – and school is his ticket to a better life, one free of the worries and drudgery that shape his parents’ world – but he has been careful to avoid letting his mother and father know about the lost shoes. As he tells Zahra when he asks her to keep their little secret, “Baba has no money for a new pair. He will have to take out a loan.”
Things start looking up for the siblings when Ali enters a long-distance foot race between competing schools. The third-place prize is a pair of new sneakers. Ali has no interest in first or second place, whose awards are far beyond his immediate need (a week’s vacation on the Caspian Sea, for instance). But if he wins the sneakers, he can give them to Zahra, and they won’t have to share his shoes anymore (which are rapidly wearing out).
The film has a simple premise, yet it is packed with emotional tension worthy of a thriller. In one scene, Zahra loses a sneaker on her mad dash home after class. The shoes are too big for her, so one falls off and tumbles into the joob (the water-filled gutter than lines Tehran streets). The suspense mounts as the shoe tumbles over rocks and around debris in the gushing stream. Zahra races along the street, grabbing frantically for the sneaker, her fingers just about to close around it. One inch more and she’ll have the prize. But then comes another eddy, sweeping it out of her grasp. When the sneaker gets caught in a culvert, just out of reach of her small hands, I felt the echo of her frustrated tears in the prickles behind my own eyes.
In Children of Heaven, Majid Majidi tells his story through the eyes of children, which gives the film a sense of innocence that softens the bleakness of the character’s lives. And yet, along with their wide-eyed view of the world, these kids are wise beyond their years. They live adult lives with adult cares. Zahra’s school-free afternoons are filled with household chores, for her mother is ill and not supposed to do heavy work. Ali must run errands for the family while his father is toiling away at the company where he works as the tea “boy.”
Majidi also has an eye for the kind of detail that adds poetic nuance to the fictional world he has built. Life may be harsh in the slums of South Tehran, but that doesn’t mean the people are hard. Small acts of generosity abound, like the time Ali’s mother ladles out a bowl of soup from the family’s meager meal for an elderly neighbor who is even sicker than she.
In another scene, Zahra spots her lost shoes on the feet of a schoolmate and follows the girl home then discovers that the girl’s father is a blind rag picker who supplements his family income through donations from kindhearted shopkeepers. Zahra realizes that some people are even worse off than herself and she abandons her plan to ask for the return of her shoes.
One thing is for sure: watch this movie and you’ll never take your shoes for granted again.