Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Willow Tree. (2005) Majid Majidi

Last month I wrote about catching up with Majid Majidi and his marvel of a film, The Song of Sparrows. The film was an Iranian family story rendered with beautiful color and complex thought. I've loved Majidi's work for years, but catching up with his latest has been even more joyous than I'd imagined.

The Willow Tree is a beautiful, well paced film full of touching, tender moments, moments of wonder at something as simple as sight, and moments of confusion as to what to do with it. It's been years since I've seen The Color of Paradise, but from what I remember in that film about a blind boy, this certainly feels like a companion piece.

After undergoing an operation and being told they'll take the bandages from his eyes tomorrow, the blind Yusef opts to do the deed himself, and is overjoyed in his hospital room with sight. It is the first time he's seen anything in 38 years. His senses overload, he is trembling and filled with tears of joy.

Shot after scrumptious shot, light and color and space all bleed into one another as if noticing each other for the first time.  He sees his bandages, he sees his hands, he sees an insect scurrying with a crumb across the blinds. He walks funny down the hospital hallway, unsure of how to function with his sight, and soon his walking turns to running and running into dancing, and crying and jumping and --

And then he sees his reflection. The last time he saw himself he was eight years old. After thirty-eight years, what he now sees disturbs him. He is old and wrinkled and there is gray poking out of his beard.

Later he sees his mother for the first time since he was a child, and sees his wife for the first time ever. The way that they look at themselves even changes when they see the way he looks at them.

Always a joy is the sight of his daughter, and to see her make the words he's loved to hear.

Yusef prayed for this early on in the story, when things looked hopeless, when it looked like he was not only blind but diseased as well. Before the miracle of his sight he prayed in darkness, and when his sight is surgically recovered he offers a prayer of thanksgiving. The name of God is not mentioned. This is the most universal film Majidi's made.

In his prayer of thanksgiving Yusef says, "I know I was wrong... My biggest mistake was not knowing you enough... You didn't forget about me in Your book of compassion... If I come out of this darkness, I'll be with you forever."

It's a stirring film where a man seeks a miracle from above, and maybe later he's not certain he asked for the right miracle. So much story is told between the spaces, there's so much to look at here, and you can pause and reflect in the moment.

The whole experience is very much like a psalm. It's like David writing his thoughts down, extending from the triumphant joys in the obvious miracle of answered prayer, to the lowest, toughest, most soul searching "down in the valley" moments. Without spoiling anything it's safe to tell you that it ends and begins in exactly the same spot, which is in Yusef writing prayers to God and honestly searching for a way to begin things anew. He does receive this and the experience startles and confuses him. He nearly loses his mind from this "blessing."

Whether or not he gets one more shot at another start after his first "second start" is arguable, ambiguous, somewhat abstract. But at this point we've left behind any notion that this is a simple Iranian story with a moral. It's apparent in deep, meditative, prayer-like tones that what we have witnessed -- in fact, what we've taken part in -- is the writing of a prayer, a song to God. A song from a humble, willing and somewhat exasperated servant who has endured all that he can. It's a song that, by the film's end, could be sung by Yusef whether he's seeing or blind.

There are limits to both being blind and being able to see. Both are dangerous in different ways. Both have rewards and blessings; both are disadvantages that carry a curse.

There's a moment of montage right in the middle that perfectly illustrates why I really admire the film's pace. A choice of shots and perfect editing capture the characters purely in their current world:

Yusef is standing in pouring rain, waiting outside a school for a younger girl he's known and finally seen, a girl he's smitten with now that he can see. He stands in the pouring rain with some papers in his hand -- they are papers that she asked him to look over. There's a rose tucked away in the middle of those papers. He's getting drenched just waiting for her to emerge . She finally stumbles out into the misty gray weather but doesn't see Yusef across the street...

And then we see the look of sadness on Yusef's face as her boyfriend also emerges (it was never even thought that she might have a boyfriend). He's using his jacket to shield her from the rain. The two duck into a car and head off, as Yusef scurries behind some shrubs.

And here come the shots:

Yusef wanders out into the middle of the road, still in pouring rain, and he watches as the car slowly drives away. From behind him we watch with him as the car pulls down the road.

Then, edit: Now we are twenty feet further behind him. He's still watching. The car is still pulling away. To our left is a parked car. It's Yusef's car, and his wife is sitting inside facing us, but she's looking in the rearview mirror. She's known what's in Yusef's heart, and she's here watching the whole thing unfold behind her.

Again, edit: Now we are looking in the rearview mirror that Yusef's wife is looking into. Her eyes are never diverted as she continues to watch her husband watch. We stay focused on him with her, as she starts the car and pulls in the opposite direction. Now we're watching her eyes watch him stand in the rain, with his back to us as we drive away .

It's a wonderfully built capturing of the synchronized images of a broken down man in isolation.

Some of the hope in the light of new sight turns inward, to fear, to isolation and "seeing" darkness. It's a strange twist that seems to happen to Yusef over the course of the story. It's a twist he wants to undo yet again.

The Willow Tree is a slower-paced art-like film. Take time with it and let it seep into your bones. It will bring reflection when you need it. A sense of calm in life's crazy storm. It is lush with beauty, ripe with meaningful questions, a bit melancholy in its prayers for humanity, but enduring and timeless as a resonant work of art.

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