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DVD SAVANT

The Willow Tree


The Willow Tree
New Yorker
2005 / Color / 1:85 letterbox flat / 96 min. / Beed-e majnoon / Street Date May 20, 2008 / 29.95
Starring Parviz Parastui, Roya Taymourian, Afarin Obeisi, Mohammad Amir Naji, Melika Eslafi, Leila Outadi, Mahmoud Behraznia
Cinematography Mahmoud Davudi, Bahram Badakshani, Mohammad Davudi
Production Design Behzad Kazzazi
Film Editor Hassan Hassandoost
Original Music Ahmad Pezhman
Produced, Written and Directed by Majid Majidi

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Willow Tree (Beed-e majnoon) is a sensitive drama from Iranian director Majid Majidi, whose earlier work has won numerous festival awards. 1997's The Children of Heaven garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. This 2005 production focuses on the problems of a blind man who regains his sight. Majidi's narrative and characterizations carry the idea only so far but he compensates with lush, evocative visuals.

Synopsis:

Forty-five year-old University professor Youssef (Parviz Parastui) has been blind since he was eight. He lives quietly with his wife Roya (Roya Taymourian) and small daughter. Doctors take care of a tumor behind one of Youssef's eyes and discover that a corneal transplant might restore his vision. Youssef recovers slowly at a clinic in Paris and is befriended by another patient, who tells him poetic stories about a willow tree. Now able to see, Youssef returns to Teheran and is confronted with the emotional shock of perceiving his home and his relatives as they truly are. He refuses to go back to the University and no longer values his library of Braille writings, his life's work. Youssef begins to feel that he was cheated out of a different kind of life, especially when a beautiful young student expresses interest in studying under his tutelage.

The best aspect of The Willow Tree is that it puts a human face on the Islamic nation of Iran. Our professor is a middle-aged academic living more or less as a University professor might in any other part of the world. Teheran is a modern city with beautiful neighborhoods, busy expressways and fancy retail stores where big screen televisions are on display. The women wear head coverings but we don't see anybody behaving like a radical. The only hint of militarism is an old picture of a relative in uniform on Youssef's mantle.

The miracle of eyesight is equated with the process of self-enlightenment. Youssef's problem might just as well be a mid-life crisis. Concentrating on the professor's new visions allows director Majidi to construct his film in expressive images. We perceive everything through Youssef's newly healed eyes: relatives crowding a greeters' window at the airport, furnishing in his house, his backyard with its fountain and the flowers his wife grows. Youssef's world has changed completely. Fascinated by reality, he turns away from abstract things. He doesn't want to teach any more and can't face the problems of other blind teachers and pupils. But he's fascinated by a jewelry factory, in which precious metals are cast into decorative shapes. The professor's real problems begin when he loses perspective on his life, and follows the beautiful student Pari (Leila Outadi).

One can tell that The Willow Tree is a mainstream film from a Muslim country by the way it handles the issue of infidelity. Youssef really doesn't have a chance to be unfaithful. No demonstrations of affection are shown between he and his wife Roya; they don't even kiss or hug. Youssef has no contact whatsoever with Pari. He sees her only once or twice, and then from afar. But that's enough of a sin to motivate Roya's taking her daughter and leaving him.

Old American movies about people losing and regaining their sight are usually crude soap operas. Douglas Sirk's handsome but morally vapid Magnificent Obsession is about a playboy who atones for his selfish life by studying to become a top surgeon and restore a woman's eyesight. The Willow Tree also uses the eyesight motif to examine a man's character. As a midlife crisis story, it more closely resembles author Mario Benedetti's oft-filmed La Tregua (The Truce). A middle-aged bachelor has a brief and blissful affair with a young woman, and when it ends he must face his empty life once more. Cultural considerations won't permit Youssef to have an actual affair but his story arc is much the same. When he has lost his family and is brought low, the professor turns to spiritual values for solace.

Majid Majidi's cameramen bring this spiritual dimension to life with their glowing images. The movie appears to have been very handsomely filmed (see below). The fine actor Parviz Parastui expresses Youssef's delight as well as his despair. Majidi's earlier The Color of Paradise deals with blindness as more of a practical problem. A widower wants to remarry and considers his blind son a liability.


New Yorker's DVD of The Willow Tree is a visual disappointment. The video master source is a dark, non-enhanced transfer that appears to crop the sides of the image. Some compositions are very tight on the sides and the main titles are barely on-screen. It's simply not a good transfer that reminds of the mediocre work on some old Fox Lorber tapes and discs. Ahmad Pejman's beautiful score is often singled out for praise, but the disc's audio quality is also nowhere near what we expect to hear these days. Removable English subtitles translate the Farsi dialogue. The transfer has no chapter stops and no real menu, just a card with a button reading, "Play".


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Willow Tree rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Fair
Sound: Fair
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 23, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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