Iranian director Majid Majidi's seriocomedy The Song of Sparrows projects a comfortable, funky lyricism. The picture exudes a down-to-earth, one-thing-after-another plainness that makes it feel both refreshing and accessible; we laugh at the befuddlement of Chaplinesque everyman Karim, an Iranian ostrich farmer, even as we fully empathize with his logical reactions to the nuttiness of the surrounding world. Grimy, earthy, and a bit ham-fisted, Karim has no emotional middle ground, no slow burn; he cuts from placidity to maxed-out fury instantly, but he's all bark and no bite. There is no cruelty beneath his rants, no hostility -- his frustration is that of a man drowning in life's whirlpool and clamoring for a way out. The film's idiosyncrasy lies in its offbeat tone, a Chekhovian tone pitched midway between absurdist farce and contemporary tragedy; Majidi's skill lies in coupling those two polarized elements in one sequence after another.
The story commences when an ornery ostrich runs away from the ranch and costs Karim his job; in a desperate attempt to salvage this fate, the farmer hits the surrounding fields dressed in a crude ostrich outfit, unsuccessfully designed to draw the prodigal bird back to him. Meanwhile, Karim's children hatch a madly ambitious plan to clean out a local sewer facility, replace the polluted water with fresh water, and breed goldfish that they can sell to become rich. These actions drive the uncomprehending Karim around the bend, especially when his semi-deaf daughter loses her hearing aid in the sludge, retrieves it, and discovers its defectiveness. In later sequences, Karim travels to Tehran to repair the device and inadvertently winds up taking a job as a motorcycle cabbie and courier in the metropolis.
The scene with the ostrich costume epitomizes the unusual voice of this material; while the get-up looks ridiculous from a close vantage point and earns its share of belly laughs, Majidi then zooms out to reveal the vast expanse of the fields surrounding Karim, making his desperation palpable for us. Similarly, we grasp the hopelessness inherent in the penniless Karim's conversation with the hearing aid repairman even as we laugh with recognition in a following scene when a passerby mistakes Karim's motorcycle for a taxicab, hops on the back, and gives Karim a destination -- and Karim takes off and accepts cash without hesitation.
While Majidi resists explicitly working fantasy elements into the film in the magic realist vein, he does elevate a number of finely felt and simple occurrences to a magical level, notably the bittersweet outcome of the well scenario, with a successful clean-up but a surrealistic accident that involves thousands of fish filmed in extreme slow motion.
If the film has a flaw, the narrative feels a bit loose; a handful of sequences, especially in the middle third of the film, fail to drive the story forward, and as a result, it occasionally feels rudderless. Of course, one might reasonably argue that this randomness constitutes part of the film's theme, but it still strikes one as a weakness. Majidi rebounds from these lapses somewhat thanks to Karim's ultimate attitude shift toward his children -- an attitude shift that reveals his deepening respect and long-resisted admiration, and that re-imparts the narrative with much-needed dramatic structure.
All told, Sparrows never steps beyond the level of modestly ambitious, but the individual scenes and performances feel so surefooted, the directorial voice so unique, and the humor so irresistible that the overall film leaves one with feelings of warm satisfaction.
Cast & Details
- Released: 2008
- Rating: PG
- Review: Iranian director Majid Majidi's seriocomedy The Song of Sparrows projects a comfortable, funky lyricism. The picture exudes a down-to-earth, one-thing-after-another plainness that makes it feel both refreshing and accessible; we laugh at the befuddlement o… (more)