You might think, what with all the political posturing about axes of evil and all, that a film from Iran would feature a wide-eyed religious zealot spewing paragraphs of hate. Instead, in this extremely thoughtful and at times agonizing film, we get a dead-eyed (literally, he's blind) professor, deeply religious yet questioning the vagaries of fate that repeatedly set him spinning on unexpected courses, leading him to ultimately erupt against the cruel master he "sees" planning all of his misfortunes: the Almighty.
Director Majid Majidi, the only Iranian director to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (for Children of Heaven, which lost to Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful) has previously mined the world of the blind in The Colour of Paradise. Here, however, it's largely and surprisingly viscerally told from the first-person point of view (so to speak) of Iranian university professor Yusef (Parviz Parastui in an absolutely incredible performance). The film in fact begins in blackout, with only a soundtrack full of a lovely babbling brook and the shouts of a distant child to be heard. The film shifts to a more traditional storytelling style, and we find Yusef in the courtyard of his Tehran home, surrounded by his cute little daughter and subdued wife Roya (Roya Teymourian, in another knockout performance). When Yusef suddenly collapses on the deck of his home, it's discovered that he has a tumor affecting his optic nerve and so he is transported to Paris for examination.
In one of several nice dramatic left turns in this story, doctors discover that Yusef's eyes, seemingly irreparably injured in a fireworks accident when he was 8, still have life in them, and they decide to attempt a cornea transplant. This sets up the bulk of the rest of the film, wherein Yusef, now 45, is suddenly sighted again and must adapt to a new, supposedly more filled with options, life. But under Majidi's beautiful and nuanced direction, Yusef finds that being able to see actually creates as many problems as opportunities for Yusef, leading to an absolutely devastating emotional climax that will leave a lot of viewers quite shaken.
This film has so many lovely and touching (and terrifying) moments that it's hard to single out just two or three. But the sequence where Yusef first discovers he has vision again is a marvel of filmmaking technique. Not a word of dialogue is uttered (other than Yusef's excited nonsensical babbling), and yet Majidi's intentions are crystal clear every step of the way. One of the most emotionally affecting moments is when the newly sighted Yusef returns to Tehran, only to be met by scores of well-wishers, none of whom (with the exception of his mother) he has ever seen before. Again, in a dialogue free sequence, everything is made amazingly clear--Yusef scans the faces trying to determine which one is Roya, in the process of which he spies another woman who sets up some of the dramatic tension in the film's second half.
While some may find Yusef's sudden violent transition toward the end of the film alarming, it's actually foreshadowed in Parastui's smoldering performance throughout the movie. His Yusef is a deeply wounded man who wants to believe his Creator has a specific plan for him, and yet he is mad as hell that his life has suffered under less than optimal conditions. When the answer to one prayer (that his vision is restored) does not automatically make everything absolutely perfect, Yusef is a lost and tortured soul, wondering what might be coming next. There's a foreboding sense of impending doom in several sequences in the film (when Yusef chases his daughter down some alleys shortly after his transplant, I was as nervous as I've ever been in a slasher flick) which finally does unfold in the final moments of the film. While the film ends with a hopeful, if somewhat ambivalent, note, there's an aura of melancholy hanging over these proceedings that is deeply touching and very real.
The unenhanced 1.78:1 image has some contrast problems, which are chief among its minor failings. The image, while relatively sharp, has some washout problems with its colors. You'll also notice some scratches and other abrasions, and at times the right side of the image (especially in the opening moments) is noticably faded. The contrast issues make the English subtitles actually harder to read, even though they are white with black outlines. Whoever did these subtitles must be a graduate of Evelyn Wood Speed Reading, because several of them only flash on the screen for a couple of seconds, while the dialogue continues unabated. There are also a couple of problematic moments when the story shifts to Paris and the actors speak French. There are Persian subtitles for the original Iranian audience already on the film itself, with the English subtitles superimposed on them, making the whole thing pretty much unreadable. All of this said, the film is eminently watchable.
The original Persian soundtrack is the only one offered, and it is a delicately woven piece of sound effects (especially important for a film largely dealing with blindness), dialogue and some haunting underscore.
Just a few trailers for other New Yorker releases.
The Willow Tree may be too low key for viewers used to slam bang, mindless entertainment. If you want something that will actually engage your emotions on a very deep level, even if those emotions become more uncomfortable as the film progresses, The Willow Tree will touch you as few recent films have. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet