Iranian screenwriter-director Majid Majidi is best known for his 1998 feature debut, “Children of Heaven”, that became the first Iranian film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. "Baran" is just as beautiful.
The movie deals with Afghani refugees in Iran. It's 2001 and large number of them is living on the outskirts of Tehran due to the war with Russia and then the oppressive Taliban's regime. Most of Afghan men are working illegally at the construction sites, obviously for far less wages than the Iranian workers. A building site is an unusual location for a love story but here it is - the story of Lateef and his silent romantic interests in an Afghan refugee.
Lateef (Hossein Abedini), the young Azeri Iranian, is having an easy time at the construction site with the job of serving tea and preparing food for other workers. The workers come from all parts of Iran, many of them are refugees from war torn Afghanistan. They have no identity card and are employed illegally as cheap labor. When the labour inspectors show up, the Afghan workers must hide. Day after Najaf, one of illegal Afghan workers falls from the building and is seriously injured, appears his adolescent son – Rahmat (Hossein Abedini). He was send to fill in, since his father is unable to work with a broken leg and he has many children to take care of. Rahmat is small and weak, unable to do heavy manual work at the construction site. He's constantly dropping the heavy loads of concrete, which never seem to end up anywhere. Eventually, the contractor, Memar switches the boys, putting Rahmat on kitchen duty and forcing the infuriated Lateef to take up the heavy lifting. Lateef is sore about losing his comfy job and continuously torments Rahmat. He does everything in his power to sabotage his rival until the day when, after one of his pranks, he learns by accident that Rahmat is actually a girl. Latif's heart softens, he's really sorry about his early acts and starts to be very protective gradually falls in love with Rahmat.. He's doing what he can to ease the hardships the girl suffers at work and is trying to save her from the inspectors. One day, however, during a surprise visit of the labour inspectors, they find themselves face to face with Rahmat. She panics and runs away as they chase her through the city streets. Lateef runs after them, struggles with the inspectors, allowing Rahmat to flee. After this accident the government inspectors force Memar to fire all Afghans from the site. Lateef takes a leave and spends some time tracking the girl down. Eventually he find out where she stays and spies her from afar while she's working in harsh conditions, pulling large rocks from and icy cold river. He becomes increasingly fascinated by the immigrant's life and history, also learning her real name – Baran (apparently “rain” in Persian).
Many would assume the principal subject of the film would be the female protagonist Baran. But the film turns out to be a tale about the man who falls in love with Baran rather than about Baran herself. It traces the gradual change in the male character Lateef before and after falling in love with the girl and his maturing into one that cares more for others less fortunate than himself. He gives away all his accumulated salaries and in the end he even sells his most valued possession, the ID-card, to give Rahamat's family enough money to go back to Afghanistan. Majidi does not tell his story through plot and dialogue as much as by simply observing the behaviour of his characters and through stark, yet beautiful images. Baran is almost a silent movie: woman lead actor does not speak a word throughout entire movie. It's so quite and understated, yet leaves such an impact.
Baran is a love story but for me it runs in the background. It's better to forget about obvious love tale and concentrate on details, perfectly crafted, that tell another, perhaps more interesting story, helping to understand world history better - Soviet Union's attack on Afghanistan and the life of Afghans after the invasion was over. It also shows the ethnic differences within the Iranian population and Teheran itself as the mosaic of ethnicity. The construction site brings the different ethnicities together. The Persian Iranians play the Inspectors, the Azeris bond together and take care of each other, the Kurds and the Lurs are easily provoked to fight the Azeris, while the poor Afghans, without identity papers, toil away for a fraction of what the others earn always fearing deportation if spotted by the Persian Iranian inspectors. The official website of Baran explains the details.
Baran is indeed a powerful story of unselfish love. Lateef took a desperate measures to get money, only to learn that thanks to this, Najaf and his family will returning to Afghanistan and most probably he will never see Baran again. Although Majidi made "Baran" before the terrible events of autumn 2001, the movie is uncannily well-timed. This is also why the end is so incredibly disturbing. In a way it's a positive thing that Baran and her family can return to their homeland, especially that in Iran they were always a second class citizens, hardly allowed to leave the refugee's camps. On the other hand something about seeing the girl as she's about to leave Iran, fully covering herself with burkha (a tent-like garment that covers the women from head-to-foot), instead of usual scarf she was wearing before, made me deeply sad and wondering what is worst... Staying in a country where as a foreigner you don't have any rights or staying in your own country (still under Taliban's rule) where as a women you don't have them anyway?