The White Balloon

Director: Jafar Panahi
Year: 1995
Rating: 8.0
Country: Iran

This debut feature from Jafar Panahi is a heartwarming charm of a film. If it had been filmed in black and white it would have fit in nicely with the Italian neo-realism films of the 1950's. Everything feels so natural - the conversations, the acting, the setting and situation. It was written by Abbas Kiarostami whom Panahi had worked for as an assistant director. When it was released in Iran since it was about children it was weirdly shown in children theaters - and no doubt children would enjoy this but adults even more. Panahi shows such a sure hand with children in this and his follow-up film The Mirror. They never feel like they are acting - he just keeps their performances minimal - just various expression wash across their faces like waves. Aida Mohammadkhani is such a determined little cherub whose beseeching eyes could talk a cat out of a tree.

It is a very simple story - another mini-Odyssey as was The Mirror - but this one is much gentler, quieter, delicate and logistically very much simpler as it all takes place in a city block of stores, winding alleys and homes hidden behind dirt walls with communal courtyards. It is New Year's Eve and having a goldfish on the table is a rite for a long life - called "haftsin". Goldfish are bought, displayed and then released after New Years. Razieh's family already have some goldfish in a small fountain in their courtyard but Razieh tells her mother that they are all too skinny and she wants to buy a chubby one that looks like it is dancing. She bugs and bugs her mother - with pouts as large as a Great Lake - until the mother says "ok get my bag" which sets off Razieh's smile like a lit Christmas tree.

The mother gives her a 500 rial note and off Razieh scampers at full speed to buy the goldfish - but this is just the start of a series of misadventures for this 7-year old as everything goes wrong. Along the way we pass through a slice of Iranian life with conversations overheard - a tailor complaining that a customer's neck is too small, two snake charmer showmen, an army recruit a long ways from home striking up a conversation with this little girl because she reminds him of his sisters back home. It is slowly paced - never rushed - and that allows you to soak up and absorb the world that surrounds Razieh. And because this little girl captures your heart unless you are made of stone, it becomes oddly suspenseful. Is the world set against her or will she prevail.

Sweet, simple and near perfect. It is amazing what can be done with a good idea and space - so far Panahi has made nine feature films and I am sure that the entire budget of all of them combined is a fraction of any Hollywood film but their accumulated heart and soul is ten times. It is so refreshing to see a film without a special effect in sight. No slickness, no super heroes, no impossible gun battles, no saving the world - just a little bit of real life that matters not to anyone except this little girl and her goldfish. And somehow to us. Our cinematic souls need this cleansing from time to time.