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'Baran' tells moving story of man's awakening from shelfishness

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

I first saw the Iranian movie "Baran" at last year's Toronto International Film Festival -- a few days before Sept. 11. I mention this fact because of the picture's setting, a construction site in Iran that illegally employs Afghan refugees who (as explained in an opening title) flooded into the country to escape drought, war and the Taliban.


RATING: PG for language and brief violence.

PLAYERS: Hossein Abedini, Mohammad Amir Naji, Zahra Bahrami.

DIRECTOR: Majid Majidi.

WEB SITE: baran.cinemajidi.com


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But "Baran," now at the Oaks Theater, is neither a political tract nor a suddenly outdated primer on life under the former Afghan regime. The movie uses the plight of the refugees to tell a very personal, very moving story of universal resonance -- a young man's brooding journey from petty selfishness to magnificent benevolence.

Latif (Hossein Abedini), an Iranian in his late teens, has one of the lighter jobs at the construction site -- literally, he is chief cook and bottle washer. The boss, Memar (Mohammad Amir Naji), employs the Afghans in addition to his own countrymen, winking at the law in the process. The Afghans work harder and for lower wages, but Memar, a grouch with a heart of gold, often digs into his own pockets to augment his workers' pay.

After one of the Afghans, Najaf, suffers serious injuries in a fall, his friend Soltan (Hossein Mahjoub Abbas Rahimi) asks Memar to employ a slightly built youngster he introduces as Najaf's son, Rahmat. As Memar suspects, Rahmat proves physically incapable of doing the work. So he gives Latif's job to Rahmat and assigns the older youth to heavier labor.

Latif resents it and sets out to harass Rahmat at every turn until, by accident, he learns something that completely changes his attitude about his fellow worker. He becomes protective of Rahmat, although not without personal motives, and ends up transforming himself to a degree that is as astonishing as it is believable.

Writer-director Majid Majidi ("Children of Heaven," "The Color of Paradise") emphasizes the theme of identity throughout "Baran." The Afghans are a displaced group of people who must hide their presence whenever government inspectors show up, and Rahmat has a particular secret to keep.

But Latif feels estranged as well, and not just because of his age. The first time we see him, he is buying food for the workers at a store. Memar pays the bills, but the shopkeeper holds Latif's identity card, a vital document, as collateral.

The symbolism is apt. He is not his own person, and he tries to compensate by asserting himself in an environment where cooperation is crucial, managing mostly to anger his fellow workers. He makes flippant remarks at inappropriate times, shrugs off his relatively easy job and takes offense at the mildest rebuke.

But as he becomes more and more obsessed with helping Rahmat, and as he observes the terrible hardships that all of the Afghans bear, Latif finds a quest for which he willingly effaces himself.

He tries to sell his identity card on the black market to raise money for Rahmat and Najaf. As his quest continues, Latif at one point brushes away his reflection in a pool of water. At the end, when an Afghan woman suddenly flips down the front of her burqa to cover her face as she prepares to return to her country, it is not just a denial of her individuality but also the acceptance of a kind of responsibility. That applies also to Latif, who for the first time in the film looks and acts less like a boy than a man.

The word "baran" is translated on screen as "rain." Majidi often shows his characters getting drenched in a downpour or, later in the film, beside a rushing river. Their lives seem to be carried along in a deluge beyond their control. Latif learns that it is possible, and sometimes necessary, to struggle against the current -- and against one's own stubborn self for the greater good. Given the state of the world over the past year, it is a lesson humankind may need to absorb more than ever.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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