It’s hard not to think of The Bicycle Thief while watching the first half of Majid Majidi’s The Song Of Sparrows, in which a poor Iranian father suffers a series of numbing setbacks, and his none-too-reliable motorcycle becomes the slim barrier between his family and ruin. But while the film incorporates a touch of neo-realism, Iranian director Majid Majidi (Children Of Heaven) isn’t aiming for miserablism; his beautifully austere morality tale is more a sun-parched version of a different well-known story, where a man who defines himself by his place in the big city comes to realize that country living is richer and more emotionally nourishing.
Not that star Reza Naji starts out as a shallow city slicker in need of a takedown. He lives in the desert outside Tehran, where he works on an ostrich farm and lives with his sweet, soft-spoken wife and their three children. His life has two modes: the contemplative silence in which he travels through seemingly endless hills, surveying his brown and barren kingdom, and the ratcheted-up, frantic screaming that mark his interactions with other people—particularly his young son, whose entrepreneurial attempts offend Naji’s sense of propriety.
Which makes it all the more difficult when a minor but expensive household disaster and a more serious work crisis leave Naji lacking money and employment. Entirely by accident, he discovers that ferrying people and merchandise around Tehran is lucrative, and soon he’s caught up in the harsh rhythm of the city, where people casually throw away items he considers luxuries, and money flows freely.
The Song Of Sparrows can be strident about its family dealings and too on-the-nose about its symbolism. (No points for figuring out the meaning behind a wayward ostrich, which leaves its proper place but learns the value of home at the end.) And its dry whimsy, spare landscapes, and sparer sitar score are very simple pleasures, as simple as the film’s ultimate message about traditional family values. But Majidi’s eye for severe, desolate beauty is keen, and so is his sense of what makes his characters more real than their calculatedly cinematic situation. It’s easier to find enjoyment in Sparrows on a moment-by-moment basis than to swallow its message whole, but that method squares just fine with Majidi’s aesthetic, in which tiny, quiet joys are the best kind.