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Master director Majid Majidi, a poetic voice for the marginalized in his native Iran, tells of his subjects' hardship and dignity with deeply felt compassion in a body of work almost entirely dedicated to disadvantaged youth. From his Oscar-nominated “Children of Heaven” to his most recent gem of social realism, “Sun Children,” his commitment to the most vulnerable stands unwavering.
In Majidi's latest, freckled 12-year-old Ali (Roohollah Zamani), a jack-of-all-trades, legal and otherwise, has rarely known kindness. Never able to let his guard down in the grit of Tehran, Ali intently acts tough to survive. But there’s desperation in his startled eyes and pleading voice. Zamani’s heart-wrenching performance, one of the best in any film this year, exudes the hurt of a boy without a father and whose mother is in a mental institution.
When a local criminal tasks him with digging up a treasure buried near a school for street children, he and his young associates, all suffering precarious conditions and forced labor, must enroll and slowly carve their way to the prize. Inside, Mr. Rafie (Javad Ezati), a dedicated teacher who worries for Ali, tries to prevent the Sun School’s impending eviction from the building.
Majidi and cinematographer Hooman Behmanesh dot the drama with arresting imagery, soaked in a sunlit glow, such as one of the students throwing their backpacks in the air as they climb a wall, fast-paced chases, or freed pigeons flying over clear skies.
Fortunately, Majidi doesn’t take the expected path a Western production would with this premise, but rather demands we grapple with the unfairness of the world through these boys’ eyes. Some might get an exit, the vast majority won’t. As in his film “Baran,” the experience of Afghan refugees also concerns him here, and is personified by a young girl clandestinely selling goods on the subway to support her family.
Though affecting and humbly breathtaking, “Sun Children” doesn’t bargain in condescending pity. Majidi’s characters have agency, even if often at the mercy of their adolescence. They cry tears of anger and exhaustion, but also swim in a fountain or play soccer, as if to remind themselves they are still just children.
Those fleeting instances of juvenile enjoyment make the film’s final stroke all the more painful. Once the dust settles in Ali’s underground search, the most valuable riches — the hope for a future and adults who genuinely care — have already been pillaged.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.