The Song of Sparrows

2009-07-10 13:00

What it’s about:

Karim works at an ostrich farm outside of Tehran, Iran. He leads a simple and contented life with his family in his small house, until one day when one of the ostriches runs away. Karim is blamed for the loss and is fired. Soon after, he travels to the city in order to repair his elder daughter’s hearing aid but finds himself mistaken for a motorcycle taxi driver. Thus begins his new profession: ferrying people and goods through heavy traffic. But his new job starts to transform Karim’s generous and honest nature, much to the distress of his family.

What we thought:

Once upon a time in South Africa, "foreign movie" pretty much meant "French movie". Then we saw the odd German or Spanish art piece. But in the last 10 years, movies from all over the world are finding their way into our cinemas. In fact, you may even have seen an Iranian movie a few years ago – a slow-paced but fascinating story of a female electoral officer travelling many miles to encourage villagers to cast their vote, called Secret Ballot (2002).  Or the recent animated movie, Persepolis.

The Song of Sparrows comes onto circuit a few weeks after the furore over the Iranian election results. But it’s not about politics, and it’s a lot more humorous than its title makes it sound.

Like Majid Majidi's previous films, which have had a fair amount of success and even awards in the west, The Song of Sparrows is a tragi-comic morality tale about the extraordinary struggles of "ordinary" people, told with humour and tenderness. Reza Naji gives Karim the everyman quality that makes Homer Simpson loveable despite his many faults – his tendency to make blustering empty threats, his controlling behaviour that eventually leads to violence. 

It’s about how easy it is to allow yourself to react, rather than act consciously and take responsibility for your own life.

Some might see The Song of Sparrows as a little patronising. On face value, it appears to preach the untrue clichés of the Noble Poor and Corrupting Cash, cutesifying rural life and encouraging a return to pre-industrial pastoral values – as if people were really substantially different in nature when they used a horse and cart instead of a scooter!  But it’s really just a story that uses the two settings symbolically to interrogate spiritual (not religious) and moral issues (without judgement).

Like all good stories, The Song of Sparrows has the inherent qualities of a fable, acting also as a cautionary tale. It's the classic about how a man, falsely accused, struggles to cope and succeeds in surviving, but fails to save what he seeks to save. It's not really that different to the storyline of the Aussie comedy hit The Castle, humorously tackling the challenges of male pride, changing values and gender relations through a character whose imperfections can be forgiven, given the circumstances, but whose mistakes we all learn from. 

Karim's mistreatment and accidental success in the city prompts him to gradually abandon his good values in reaction to circumstances, taking an "I did this because" approach, and beginning to covet material goods for the first time. The tragedy is that the change in values he undergoes threatens the things in his life that he truly values – his standing within the community and his family. Karim's attempt to preserve what matters backfired, and like an addict, he seeks to cure his illness with the same poison that caused it.

Pride comes before the fall for Karim. But will he learn from his fall?

Told at a varying but mostly leisurely pace that mirrors the city versus countryside settings, and helps place you inside the characters' lives so that you almost smell the dust, this is a film for those who love films, with amazing shots of the Iranian countryside, many visual metaphors of transport and stasis, and scenes of tragic beauty that description would spoil. See it at a cinema.

Everyman Karim earns a decent living working on an ostrich farm outside Tehran. But a new job in the city brings out the worst in him.

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