Sunday, October 30, 2005

Picked Flick #86: Where Is the Friend's Home?

Ahmed Ahmadpoor, the eight-year-old protagonist of Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home?, sits by sympathetically but helplessly as the schoolboy who sits beside him, Mohamad Reza Nematzadeh, is harshly scolded by their teacher. Mohamad Reza has failed, for a third time, to write out his homework in a notebook, as he has so often been reminded to do. The stakes of his forgetfulness are that he will be expelled from school if he repeats the error a fourth time. So, wouldn't you know, in the shuffling speed with which all students, including my own undergraduates, hasten out of class, and in the unbearable unfairness of early childhood, Mohamad Reza's most well-meaning friend accidentally swipes his neighbor's notebook in place of his own. Realizing his mistake only after returning home, Ahmed is heartbroken at the prospect of his friend's certain punishment, and despite the ornery warnings of his parents and the biddings of his grandfather ("Fetch my cigarettes!") he alights from his own village of Koker into the neighboring warren of Poshteh, looking for a friend whose whereabouts he can only dimly guess.

The sweet-temperedness of Where Is the Friend's Home? is a main reason why the film appeals so profoundly, and why it helped to jumpstart the international zeitgeist of enthusiasm for Iranian cinema. Especially by comparison to the rigid conceptions of Kiarostami's recent work, the film is unabashedly rooted in human sympathy, an affecting but never cloying scenario, and a neorealist filming style to make Bazin cheer from the grave. Kiarostami carefully but unobtrusively manages the frame even while tracking young Ahmed through the sidewinding paths and chutes of Poshteh, so that our own visual sense unites permanent dislocation with the constant unfolding of discovery. (10 is a fine movie, but mere moments into Where Is the Friend's Home?, you'll wish Kiarostami would unbolt the camera from the dashboard already.) The repetition of key shots, paticularly that Zorro-swath of an unpaved incline that reaches to the peak of a tree-topped hill, communicates a kind of hermetic life in and around Koker, even as Ahmed intrepidly tests those boundaries, and even as the same gaggle of gossiping men you find in any decent-sized town the world over reminisce about how much more disciplined they were in childhood, and debate the hot topic of how iron doors are fazing out the old wooden ones. Meanwhile, Kiarostami's simple but supple screenplay weaves in threads of local humor and wisps of dramatic irony—his mother, verging on disbelief of his story, thinks Ahmed simply wishes to avoid his own homework—that only deepen the integrity of the young boy's conviction.

For some reason I always think of Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home? as a sort of Iranian 400 Blows, perhaps because both films pay such animated, concerted, and respectful attention to the quotidian but nonetheless deeply felt quandaries of being a young boy. But it's a bad analogy. Ahmed Ahmadpoor evinces none of the incipient sass or broodish alienation of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, and certainly the aesthetics of the two films couldn't be more different. If the Kiarostami film has any European counterpart, it's Bicycle Thieves, except this is a saga of trying to return rather than recover something, and the malleable mind of the young boy in this story has direct access to his own vision of the city, unfiltered by a father's shadow. Furthermore, the rural Iranian landscape is not, as in Bicycle Thieves, riven with the signs of martial devastation. It's just, plainly, a tough place to get by, especially if you're small—one of those lean but precious premises of which movies can always use more. Sparer, less pushy, and more resonant than later Iranian exports like Children of Heaven, Where Is the Friend's Home is a perfect tonic to your worst suspicions of kiddie-centered cinema. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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