Dir: Majid Majidi. Iran. 2008. 98 mins.
The perennial workingman's blues get a cheerful philosophical spin in The Song Of Sparrows, a briskly likeable comedy from Iranian director Majid Majidi. But while the film will raise plenty of charmed smiles on the festival circuit as enjoyable light relief, its crowd-pleasing style is unlikely to score seriously with international buyers, unless - which could well be the case - the bottom has finally fallen out of the arthouse market for grittier Iranian fare.
The success of Majidi's Oscar-nominated Children Of Heaven (1997) and Colour Of Paradise (1999) led to expectations of an international career for the director as a more mainstream-friendly Iranian alternative to the austere likes of Kiarastami, Makhmalbaf and Panahi. But it never quite happened, and the very broad touch of The Song of Sparrows is unlikely to do the trick this time either.
The film is essentially a one-man vehicle for Majidi regular Reza Naji, playing good-hearted paterfamilias Karim, a worker on an ostrich farm in the country. Right from the start, it's one trouble after another for Karim: his deaf teenage daughter Haniyeh loses her hearing aid in the family water reservoir; his cheeky young son becomes obsessed with clearing out said tank and raising fish; and to cap it all, one of the ostriches breaks free and can't be caught.
Majid gets some surreal, even poetic comic mileage out of Karim's solo attempts to catch the creature: he stalks the countryside in makeshift costume, resembling a cut-price version of Sesame Street's Big Bird, but to no avail, and ends up losing his job.
Driving his moped to Tehran to order a new hearing aid, Karim accidentally finds himself embarking on a profitable new career giving lifts to big-city types, and not only lines his pockets but also starts collecting assorted free junk that builds up in his yard.
But his new life, and the city values that go with it, clearly aren't good for the soul of the increasingly cranky Karim, and it's only when his junk pile collapses that he's obliged to rest up and take stock of what's important in life.
Essentially undemanding and schematic, The Song Of Sparrows is at its pithiest when capturing the beleaguered Karim's culture shock on exposure to the sheer frenzy and selfishness of Tehran life.
Otherwise, the film's weight rests squarely on the shoulders of Naji, a dead ringer for Taxi sitcom star Judd Hirsch and a likeable regular-bloke presence with a nice line in worried double-takes.
By the final third, the narrative devolves into just one crazy thing after another, though, and Majidi will lose many viewers' sympathy when a multitude of (apparently real) goldfish are massacred just to win some cheap poignant points. Casting of cute-as-a-button kids, representation of country toil as a cheerful decorative affair, plus Majidi's penchant for bright, sun-kissed colours, show a soft, sometimes facile touch that quickly palls.
Even cynics, however, will find it hard to resist the sheer weirdness of the ostriches, especially when one of them closes the film with what can only be described as a bizarre fan dance.
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