Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Allegory and Ambiguity in the Films of Majid Majidi: A Theodicy of Meaning

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Allegory and Ambiguity in the Films of Majid Majidi: A Theodicy of Meaning

Article excerpt

The films of Majid Majidi, a contemporary Iranian writer and director, have certain identifiable socially-relevant themes: the lives of children, the struggles of the disabled or the enslaved, the marginalization of ethnic minorities, and the discovery of wonder in places that are dilapidated or poverty-stricken.1 It is perhaps on account of these themes, commenting on life in contemporary Iran, that his films have achieved critical acclaim in France, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Yet Majidi's films-especially Children of Heaven, Baran, and the Color of God-also present a world in which images, such as fish, birds, rain, and clouds, indicate religious allegory. Characters, moreover, receive names that connote sacred narratives, sometimes from Shii Muslim history, and often from Sufi readings of the Qur'an or Persian poetry. These characters, from the margins, tend neither to overcome nor to surrender to adversity, but rather to struggle, thrive, and thus embody a permanent state of human suffering. The difficult circumstances of these characters highlight their virtuous and sometimes even saintly qualities; it is not that Majidi's characters necessarily become better through suffering, but rather that their beautiful human qualities become known. A theodicy, one distinct in many respects from John Hick's soul-making theodicy, pervades Majidi's films in which God is everywhere, whether the slums of Tehran, or the camps of Afghan refugees. In this sense, the hardships of life in Iran become allegorized as a declaration of the omnipresence of spiritually infused beauty and the human realization of that omnipresence. Suffering becomes a matter of ambiguity; it is permanent and undesirable, yet somehow beautiful because of the human perfections it brings to light. Majidi's presentation of suffering certainly borrows from traditional Shii and Sufi theodicies, as Nacim Pak-Shiraz has discussed (Pak-Shiraz, 2011: 101-110). By highlighting social issues relevant to Iran and the world today, however, Majidi's productions do what film arguably does best: Majidi's films reapply traditional theologies to a world changed by war, modernization, economic disparity, and nationalism. Standing in contrast to the films' settings, in which ambiguity and pain dominate, Majidi's allegorical representations locate meaning in what is ostensibly meaningless.

Majidi and his Films

Majid Majidi is among Iran's best-known contemporary directors, having won a number of international awards and having been the first Iranian filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for his Children of Heaven (1997) in 1999, for Best Foreign Language Film. Three of his films-in fact and quite by accident, the three discussed in this paper-have won "Best Film" at the Montreal World Film Festival, one of them (in 2001) a shared award (Majid Majidi, 2001-2; Montreal Film Festival, 2015). Born in 1959, Majidi had his start in cinema as an actor, playing in three films by the celebrated Mo?sen Makhmalbaf (Pak-Shiraz, 2011: 94). His debut as a feature-film director was Baduk (1992). Majidi has himself recognized the American director John Ford (d. 1973) as having influenced his directorial style, an influence that can be seen in his use of long shots (Erfani, 2012: 24). Like the films of other prominent art-house Iranian directors, such as those of Abbas Kiarostami, Majidi's films also exhibit some features of neorealism that have been (with much dispute) linked to Italian neorealism: These include underprivileged protagonists, ambiguous endings, long shots, subtle social critique, and delimited geographical boundaries (Naficy, 2012: 4:187-8). In the case of Majidi, it might be more fitting to consider his work as having elements of a "poetic conception of neorealism" that Shohini Chaudhuri and Howard Finn have attributed to New Iranian Cinema, in which the director's point of view merges with that of the character depicted, as would occur-in literary terms-in free indirect speech (Chaudhuri and Finn, 2003: 39). …

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