The Song of Sparrows (review)

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The Bright Side of Life

We’re so used, in the U.S., to seeing films set in glamorous places about rich and beautiful people — even independent American films often feel like they’re occurring in fantasylands of abundance and comfort even when they purport to show more mundane reality — that there’s something extra startling and extra wonderful about a movie concerned with the most ordinary of folk.
Iranian director Majid Majidi — who also wrote this exquisite film with Mehran Kashani — is a master of the mundane, of transforming it into something luminous and lovely. The memory of how profoundly his 1999 film The Color of Paradise made me feel like I’d never seen a movie before still haunts me; now, The Song of Sparrows astonishes with me its simplicity, its uncomplicated wisdom, its visual salience.

The ironic thing about the film — which was Iran’s entry for last year’s Oscars for Foreign Language Film, and received a Golden Bear nomination at last year’s Berlin Film Festival — is that the concerns of Karim and his family are not at all dissimilar from those of many Americans. They may not be quite as materially wealthy — they don’t have a fridge, though Karim’s wife, Narges (Maryam Akbari), insists they don’t need one; and they don’t appear to have running water — but they’re not at all among the poorest of the poor. They’re solidly comfortable, as life in the countryside outside Tehran goes, and generally pretty happy with one another and their life. But the financial trepidation they face will be all too familiar to too many Americans.

It begins when Karim and Narges’ teenage daughter, Haniyeh (Shabnam Akhlaghi), loses her hearing aid; and when it’s finally found, it’s damaged beyond repair. Karim is desperate to buy her a new one — he’s worried that she won’t be able to do her exams at school, which are coming up soon — but the cost! His job as a wrangler at an ostrich farm doesn’t provide insurance, and they have no savings. And then, after a minor disaster at the ostrich ranch, Karim loses his job. Now things are really bad.

Karim is one of those gruff sorts of fellows, easily flying into a histrionic but harmless rages over things that don’t seem to warrant it — such as the little-boy misadventures of his son, Hussein (Hamed Aghazi) — but then he’s equally ready with gentle, sincere affection. Actor Reza Naji, a Majidi regular who won a Silver Bear for his performance here at the aforemention Berlin festival, is a compelling screen presence, a plain man with a plain face animated by conflicting, subdued emotion. Song is all Karim’s tale, as he struggles to see his family through their current troubles while never losing his grumpy good humor.

Or perhaps he does lose it, for a little while, before regaining it again. For simple the film may be, but it’s never simplistic: as Karim’s accidental new job keeps him in Tehran more and more, he becomes just a little enamored of the city and the nice things he sees around him — even the junked TV antennae he pulls off a pile of trash is nicer than what he’s got at home. But the film never descends into a unchallenging dichotomy about “city bad; country good,” or a lesson about the wages of materialism. It knows life is not so uncomplicated as that.

Karim’s new job? I won’t spoil what it is, because how he comes about it is a charming example of the film’s unexpected and odd humor. And the humor, at the unlikeliest of moments — as when things are going wrong — may well be what sticks with you the most. If you can laugh and shake your head as things are going wrong, as Karim manages to do, you’re probably gonna be all right.

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