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Sun Children, by the Iranian director Majid Majidi, gives us a prison-break drama that is escaping to nowhere, and a knockabout school comedy gone horribly wrong. The acting is broad, the plot gears often creak, but it has guts and heart and a grubby, street-smart charisma. It’s one of the finest films playing in this year’s Venice competition.
Dedicated to “the 152m children forced into child labour”, this casts 12-year-old Roohollah Zamani as Ali, the pint-sized boss of a gang of thieves, a miniature wheel inside a much bigger machine, working for an unnamed local crime boss who skulks on the rooftop amid his pigeon coops. The boss wants Ali to retrieve a hoard of unspecified treasure, which is either buried in the local graveyard or in the drainage pipe that runs beside it. And the only way he can do it is to go back to school.
The School of the Sun is a crowded, cacophonous hall of learning and hard knocks, propped up by donations and run by a pair of exhausted officials. Ali and his co-workers – Reza, Mamad and the tragic Abolfazl – line up outside the principal’s office, furiously repelling all attempts to eject them. They look like Just William and his outlaws pleading for a detention.
Largely recruited from the streets of Tehran, Majidi’s non-professional players make for a sympathetic, heart-piercing crew, with Ali’s clenched features perfectly conveying the emotions of a child who is permanently on the brink of either fight or flight. The quartet, at least at first, are only posing as students. Their real aim is to dig a hole in the basement and get their mitts on the treasure. Ali’s mother is tethered to her bed inside a psychiatric institution. He plans to use his share of the gold to provide them with a home.
Life, though, is complicated. There are wheels within wheels. Eventually we learn that the boys’ race-against-time mission is not the only high-stakes game in town. The School of the Sun is behind on its rent and faces imminent closure. Kindly Mr Rafie (Javad Ezati) shoots a fundraising video but accepts the prognosis is bleak. Midway through Sun Children, I felt I had a pretty good idea of its direction of travel, but that wasn’t quite it; Majidi tunnels deeper. In so doing, he exposes a subterranean world where there are no easy answers and few happy endings. Energetic and heartfelt, tipping towards tragedy, Sun Children crawls through the mud and emerges all the stronger. The quest is a red herring; the real treasure is the film.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Sun Children review – Iranian street kids strike gold | Venice film festival 2020