This simple yet appealing movie from Iran's burgeoning film industry is proving to be quite a crowd-pleaser. This first feature by Jafar Panahi won both the Camera d'Or and the International Critics' Prize at Cannes last year, although it lost out on an Oscar nomination when Iran withdrew it from competition in some kind of political retaliation against the United States. With such a complicated national infrastructure, it's probably a good thing that The White Balloon
keeps the story simple. In fact, it might even be considered a kids' story -- albeit in these parts, it would be a kids' story with subtitles. In its form, The White Balloon
bears more than a little resemblance to The Bicycle Thief,
Vittorio De Sica's neo-realist classic in which a man desperately searches the streets of Rome for his stolen bicycle on which his livelihood depends. In The White Balloon,
the protagonist is a seven-year-old girl on an eventful journey through the streets of her Tehran neighborhood. On March 21, the eve of the Iranian new year, young Razieh harasses her mother for money to buy a goldfish, a traditional custom. Though at home they have a pond stocked full with goldfish, Razieh wants a particular one she saw in a store earlier. The beleaguered mother finally gives her some cash in order to silence the girl's whining. Off goes Razieh, and the rest of the movie follows her child-like perspective as she negotiates the pre-holiday bustle of the big city. First she must pass a snake charmer who tricks the money from the child, only to return it to the crestfallen girl later. Off she goes again, until the money flutters through a sidewalk grating. Young Aida Mohammadkhani is achingly expressive as she alternates between Razieh's joy and despair. A kind woman assists her, a shopkeeper treats her brusquely, a soldier whiles away time in her company: These characters all seem natural and ordinary but through the child's eyes, they look like giant-sized ciphers. The movie ends on a freeze-frame of a balloon vendor, but why its title is The White Balloon
is a mystery to me. While there's an inescapable charm to the movie's simplicity, if I were Razieh's mother, the girl would have been sent into “time-out” instead of the city streets with a fistful of cash.