The Song of Sparrows
'Song' shares poetic grace amid trials and tribulations
The Muslim phrase Inch'Allah, or "God willing," is used often in "The Song of Sparrows," a new film from the Iranian director Majid Majidi. But God's will shouldn't be confused with a filmmaker's. This is a movie of small details, where Majidi is angling for little tragedies that are orchestrated by screenwriting more than they seem cosmically preordained.
The movie begins as a delicate story about Karim (Reza Naji), a sweet, hard-working husband and father of three who tries assorted jobs to earn money to replace his elder daughter's damaged hearing aid. After he loses his job on an ostrich farm (one of the ostriches makes a break for it), he's mistaken, in Tehran, for a motorbike cabbie, and suddenly his life expands as he spends his days in the city, resisting opportunities for corruption, and nights and evenings in the country.
In his transport business, Karim shuttles window frames and carries a door. He's roped into helping a man move into his large home; he donates money to an imam's shrine. And as long as "The Song of Sparrows" is focused on Karim's family and unfailing scrupulousness, it's a lovely movie. We know how much earning a living for his family means to Karim, and so we worry, when a box containing a new refrigerator is strapped to the back of his motorbike that something bad will happen. And, of course, something does. Naji is required to perform his own worry while navigating Tehran's busy streets. His tired face features a large nose and has equal capacity for sadness and joy. It's not a face that's easy to forget.
Majidi presents Karim's life in the lyrical terms that he previously used in 2005's "The Willow Tree," 2001's "Baran," and 1999's "The Color of Paradise" - with a combination of observation and ripe symbolism. "The Willow Tree" and "The Color of Paradise" were parables that hinged on seeing and sightlessness. Beautiful and movingly dolorous, their visual metaphors were deployed with almost holy significances. "The Song of Sparrows" is not as acutely symbolic, its images being more associational (how a school of fish is not unlike a gaggle of children) than heavily freighted with meaning.
Instead, the film, which Majidi wrote with Mehran Kashani, verges on overwrought. This is an "it's always something" movie, where Karim rarely has an opportunity to savor his family - and not because there's no time. The movie is single-mindedly focused on making things go wrong. So the sudden pleasure Karim takes in straightening out the mountain of junk in his shed turns into an occasion for misery. And the happy sight of little boys energetically running potted plants and vegetables across a farm soon becomes another opportunity for Majidi to inflict more misfortune on his characters.
The images in "The Song of Sparrows" have a poetic grace that's to be desired in storytelling. You feel Majidi's hand much more than you do God's.