THE COLOR OF PARADISE — *** 1/2 — Mohsen Ramezani, Hosein Mahjoob, Salameh Feyzi, Elham Sharifi, Farahnaz Safari, Mohammed Rahmaney, Morteza Fatemi, Masoomeh Zeinati; in Persian, with English subtitles; rated PG (mild profanity); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.
Hollywood has blinded itself to the fact that so few filmmakers these days can tell an interesting, compelling story, even with millions of dollars to spend.
Blindness of a different sort is a strong element of "The Color of Paradise," an Iranian drama that has the storytelling hook of a classic Hollywood work. Emotionally rich and beautiful looking, it's the type of film that should be encouraged and embraced, instead of the glut of costly, shallow follies that have dominated this summer's movie season.
Admittedly, since the movie comes from Iran, it may be a bit of a hard sell for American audiences. But the cultural differences between the United States and filmmaker Majid Majidi's home country don't really matter here — it's the universality of the story that gives it real resonance.
"The Color of Paradise" centers around Mohammad (newcomer Mohsen Ramezani), a blind 8-year-old who has used his other senses to become attuned to nature and to win over the staff and other students at an institute for the sight-impaired.
Unfortunately, those abilities don't really impress the boy's father, Hashem (Hosein Mahjoob), a widowed laborer who believes his son is an unfair burden. Rather than take the boy back with him after the school year is out, he pleads with administrators to keep him through the summer vacation.
Eventually, he does agree to take Mohammad home, and there the boy quickly thrives under the guidance of his two happy-go-lucky sisters and his grandmother (Salameh Feyzi), who runs the family farm.
There, the real reason for Hashem's fatherly reluctance is revealed — he is planning to marry a woman (Masoomeh Zeinati) from a strict Islamic family and fears his son will embarrass him. So he schemes to give Mohammad away to a sight-impaired carpenter (Morteza Fatemi), hoping the boy will at least learn a trade.
Though much of the film is told almost as a fable, there's also a dark, realistic center to the story. What Majidi is really doing is setting us up for his ending, a shocker that may haunt you for days.
To viewers not accustomed to such an unusual storytelling style, the film may seem like little more than a collection of disconnected scenes, one of the most memorable having Mohammad return an injured bird to its nest, which he does by painstakingly locating the nest by hearing and then climbing the precarious perch.
Again, it's Majidi's way of keeping his audience off balance, and it works for much of the film.
And though his cast is largely made up of newcomers and "authentic" tradesmen — with the extraordinary Ramezani being the obvious standout — Majidi isn't a devotee of "neo-realism," the gimmicky, pseudo-documentary style that so many of his contemporaries seem to be favoring of late (which uses real-life participants to tell fictionalized true stories).
"The Color of Paradise" is rated PG for mild profanity (religiously based) and some darker story elements. Running time: 90 minutes.