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The White Balloon
(Badkonake Sefid)
Iran - 1995
Directed by Jafar Panahi

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997


A striking and universally applicable take on the trials of childhood, The White Balloon benefits from solid central performances. In Tehran preparations for the New Year are in full swing, ensuring that the markets bustle with last minute shoppers. Amid the crowd a middle-aged woman (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) darts about frantically, looking worried. To her relief she finally spots a little girl, Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) and begins to drag her home. Along the way Razieh badgers her mother about buying a new goldfish, despite their having a pool full of them at home. Applying all of her charm and guile, Razieh almost but not quite convinces her mother; ultimately they have plenty of goldfish already.

In a final bid to secure a fat, multi-finned fish, Razieh tries to enlist her brother Ali (Mohsen Kafili) by offering him a deflated balloon. Burdened with the numerous tasks pressed upon him, Ali is not overly impressed; it takes a raising of the stakes to buy his assistance. Then, by spreading on thick layers of emotional blackmail, Razieh persuades her mother that it might be best if she got her way. Soon Razieh clutches her mother's last 500-toman note in her eager fist and races towards the market with her fishbowl. There are many dangers and distractions along the way but Razieh is single-minded, at least until she encounters the snake charmers (Hasan Neamatolahi and Bosnali Bahary). Since she's already been warned off mixing with the dervishes, Razieh is compelled to investigate.

Squeezing through the all-male crowd, Razieh finds herself confronted by several boxes of snakes and the smooth-talking dervish. Taking advantage of her fear, he whisks away the bank note and claims it as a donation. Amazingly though, Razieh has the guts to ask for it back, perhaps because she's more afraid of her mother than some old snake. The performers take pity on her, particularly when tears well up, and return the money with only a little trauma. As the 500-toman note is once again secure, Razieh rushes to the pet-shop and selects a particularly plump fish. When it come to pay the Manager (Asghar Barzegar), however, her money is nowhere to be seen. Instantly distressed, Razieh is led away on a fruitless search by a kindly old lady (Anna Borkowska).

The strengths of The White Balloon are simple ones and, yet, no less for that. Related in real-time, the perspective is always that of a child; thus the desire for a goldfish outweighs every other concern, adults are generally people to be wary of and the pacing is relaxed. Even better, the actors act like real children, rather than how adults think kids behave, and surprise us with their unselfconscious yet bluntly manipulative actions. Jafar Panahi, the director, manages to elicit terrific performances from his young charges but this is not his greatest triumph. It is his ability to construct an absorbing and believable film about children, without becoming condescending or phoney, which stands out. Working with the barest of storylines (written by Abbas Kiarostami) he allows the audience to focus fully on Razieh, instead of trying to follow the twists and turns of a convoluted script.

Central to The White Balloon are the incredibly natural, knowingly crude performances of Razieh and Ali. While Mohammadkhani doesn't have a particularly wide emotional range, she does have burning intelligence, brutal honesty and determination. Thus whether her features are screwed up in petulance or beaming with happiness, she never behaves out of character. Instead emotional squalls pass like summer rain, intense but short-lived, and Mohammadkhani remains appealing. As her protective older brother Kafili is surprisingly subtle, acting largely as a buffer between Razieh and the strangers around them. Elsewhere the most sympathetic character is a young Afghan balloon-seller (Aliasghar Smadi), enlisted by Ali but ultimately abandoned. Truly a stranger in Tehran, he shares the New Year with a single unsold balloon.

To those with a deeper understanding of Iranian society, no doubt The White Balloon contains perceptive asides. Fortunately for those without access to such insight, at a purely superficial level there is much to enjoy. While some of the social aspects are a little uncomfortable - the men work and gather in disreputable groups while the women wear chadors and look after children - this appears to be nothing more than a straightforward impression of how Iran is today. Of course the advantage of a child's point of view is that they see the world around them in primary colours, allowing Panahi to get away with comments that might have been censored with older actors. Ultimately The White Balloon depends upon Mohammadkhani and it is her role that defines the movie; honest, simple, touching and wryly amusing.

Note: Jafar Panahi won the International Jury Award from the Sao Paulo International Film Festival(1995) and the Tokyo Gold Award from the Tokyo International Film Festival (1995).

Runtime: 81 Minutes


Guest Comments

From: "?"

"THIS FILM IS UNIQUE IN THE SENSE THAT IT PORTRAYS WHAT THE SPIRITUAL CONTEST IS WHEN WE ATTEMPT TO FILL OUR LIVES WITH THE SAME THINGS THAT WE POSSESS INSTEAD OF LOOKING FOR THE LARGER FISH IF YOU WILL . PERHAPS THE MOST INTERESTING THING ABOUT THE FILM FROM THE REVIEW IS THE INVOLVEMENT OF THE CROWD AND THE SMALLNESS OF THE CHILD WHICH COULD BE THE INNER CHILD SEEKING TO SATISFY THE EGO. PERHAPS IT IS THAT THE SEARCH IS TO SATISFY THE SOUL AND NOT THE APPETITE OF THE EGO WHICH ONLY SEEKS AFTER THINGS. I FIND THAT THERE IS MUCH LOVE EXPRESSSED IN THIS MOVIE AS THOSE AROUND SEEK TO ASSIST AND TO KEEP THE CHILD OUT OF HARMS WAY. AS A TRUE BELIEVER IT MIGHT APPEAR THAT AS WE JOURNEY ON OUR QUESTS THERE ARE ANGELS TO PROTECT AND YES HELP US FIND THE PERFECT TREASURE FOR OUR FISH BOWL. WHAT A DELIGHT TO FIND SUCH SPIRITUAL MATURITY IN THIS FILM. I LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING IT."

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