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Children of Heaven

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 7, 1999:  The only real gripe I have against Children of Heaven is the bland, pretentious title. If only it had been called The Sneakers, or even simply Feet -- just about anything less lofty would have been better. This is a movie about children, yes, but more importantly it's a movie about sneaker-wearing children, and trust me, they aren't anywhere near heaven.

From what I can tell, this movie seems to have been billed as a kiddie flick, but this is pretty misleading. If you find yourself sitting in the theater waiting for little Ali to hop on the back of a giant wasp and fly up to the Cloud City of Nyra to battle a three-headed wizard in the hope of reclaiming the Lost Jewel of Jimbakwa stolen from the goodly Queen Eliza, you're going to have a long wait. Our hero's quest is much simpler.

He needs to figure out a way to replace his little sister's lost shoes.

Ali (played by Amir Farrokh Hashemian) lives with his parents and sister, Zahra (played by Bahare Sediqi), in a one room hellhole in the slums of Tehran. He loses his sister's shoes on the way back home from the shoemaker. Ali explains the situation to Zahra but decides to avoid telling their parents -- not only because he'll get a good old-fashioned butt whipping if he does, but because his parents are dirt poor and wouldn't be able to afford a new pair anyway. Ali is a sweet, sensitive kid. He doesn't want to make his folks feel bad.

So the two little rugrats devise a plan. Zahra will wear Ali's sneakers to school in the morning, then she'll bolt back home, trade them off to Ali, and he'll run like the wind to make it to his first class on time. All of this occurs without their parents or any other adults catching on. Thank God for weird class schedules.

Anyway, with all that running around, the kids get in pretty good shape. Ali's late for school every day, though, and the sneakers are way too big for Zahra. This causes all kinds of complications. The kids soon realize that their little arrangement can't continue forever.

One day an administrator at Ali's school announces a long distance running competition for kids. Ali, now with the lungs and thighs of a Kenyan marathon runner, is well prepared for the event. When he finds out the third place prize is a pair of sneakers, he knows he has to somehow nab third place -- and only third place -- so he can get those shoes on his sister's feet.

It's an emotional movie with an inspired and magical ending. If all this sounds corny and farfetched, well ... it is. But it's corny and farfetched in a way that will force even the toughest hard-hearted bastard to eventually crumble under the emotional weight of this sweet, little film. Children of Heaven examines the stark humiliation of poverty softened through the lens of a powerful familial love. The whole thing is just so darned charming, I almost can't stand it. Countless weepy, tender scenes are woven into the story. They revolve slowly and painfully inside your intestines like twisted, rusty pieces of tin. It's just bloody irresistible.

A hard world filters through Ali's big brown prepubescent eyes, but beyond all the misery, he sees a lot of beauty as well. Oddly for a story told from a kid's point of view, Iranian director Majid Majidi, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't vandalize his film with even the slightest smudge of condescension. Consequently, Children of Heaven is big in a way that only a tiny film like this can be.


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