Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Willow Tree

Majid Majidi has been quietly working away for years building up a body of work of supreme simplicity, beauty, and grace. My favorite example is the two young siblings who, forced by circumstances, share a pair of shoes in “Children of Heaven.”

"The Willow Tree" takes a darker, moodier, more volatile approach, but Majidi’s light and delicate hand and wonderfully observed eye is still at the forefront. I was often in awe by the sheer simplicity of his scenes and the emotional wallop they packed.

“The Willow Tree” tells the story of Professor Youssef who has been blind since age eight when fireworks scorched his eyes. He’s now middle-aged, happily married, and lovingly devoted to his young daughter. We meet him as this juncture because doctors have developed a surgical procedure that may restore his sight. Shortly after we meet him, he is off to Paris for the operation.

I may be giving too much away by this comparison – at least for people who’ve read Keyes’ book – but “The Willow Tree” offers a structure and effect similar to “Flowers for Algernon.” In that story, a mentally challenged man is given the chance to live a life of above average intellect through an experimental surgery. His loss of innocence though proves to be a proverbial two-edged sword. Both joy and pain beyond his prior ability to imagine comes with knowing too much.

We see expressions of Youssef’s happiness before the surgery such as the idyllic opening scene where twigs float down a stream rolling and mingling in the gentle turbulence until they arrive at father and daughter, seated under a tree, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. At another moment, his wedding band slips from his finger and rolls across the floor. As he gropes in despair, his wife nudges it carefully toward his searching hand.

After his surgery, he impatiently tears away his bandages and moves toward the light from a window. His first visual image in decades is of an ant struggling across a window sill under the weight of an enormous crumb. He walks out into the hospital corridors and runs back and forth, giggling childishly until he stops in his tracks, sobered by his reflection in a window. He doesn’t recognize the old man he now sees.

Movingly rendered is his arrival home at the airport. He is greeted by a mass of people, cheering and waving, all of them visually complete strangers to him. He desperately searches the faces for any glimmer of recognition, finally settling on one who must be his mother. Hers is the only face filled with calm, caring warmth. He mouths “mother” and she nods. She then helps him lay eyes on his wife and daughter for the first time in his life. I don’t cry during movies often. I did here.

Youssef also faces a newfound emotional dilemma. He finds himself infatuated with his pretty young niece. Now that his eyes have expanded the size of his world, so have they expanded the range of his temptations. Peering cautiously through leaves, rose in hand, he anticipates a meeting with his new infatuation only to be devastated as she happily hops into a car with a young man. The camera then tilts down to reveal that his wife has also observed his crush, and his crushing disappointment.

It is the saddest moment in Majidi’s work to date when Youssef’s mother observes her son’s desire for infidelity. And later, as he throws a childish tantrum, she quietly walks away, leaving him alone. Their eyes meet across a courtyard – although the expanse feels measured more in years than feet – for a final brief moment, a moment where both register the enormity of her disappointment. Then she enters her house and closes the door.

I’ve been adding and re-adding all of this up for days and haven’t quite decided how I feel about the moral of the tale. Youssef’s blindness seems a metaphor for the chasteness of Iranian culture, of how sin and temptation are avoided by hiding women from sight. But, is the film a very conservative one by saying the moment a woman becomes visible to a man he can only sin? Or is the film demonstrating the futility of a Hijab to conceal human nature?

I guess another viewing is in store and, given Majidi talents, I look forward to it with pleasure.

“The Willow Tree” has not been rated, but is suitable for all ages. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 15 at 3:00 and 5:30.

1 comment:

cNod said...
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