The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
SIGHTS UNSEEN. Majid Majidi’s The Willow Tree tells the story of a blind Iranian professor’s joy and conflict following an experimental surgery to restore his sight. (Photos courtesy of the Hollywood Theatre)
From The Asian Reporter, V18, #9 (February 26, 2008), page 15.
Gripping Iranian drama explores many shades of light and darkness
The Willow Tree
Produced and directed by Majid Majidi
Distributed by New Yorker Films
By Toni Tabora-Roberts
The film opens with a black screen. Eventually the viewer hears Youssef, a man in his 40s, voicing his thoughts as he plays with his young daughter, Mariam. The black screen represents Youssef’s perspective of darkness as a blind man and it’s a startling, effective way to bring the audience into Youssef’s world. The Willow Tree is the latest film from Iranian director Majid Majidi. It opens March 7 at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre.
Youssef’s perspective is short-lived as the audience becomes an observer. Youssef Malavi is a successful man — a respected university professor with a loving wife, Roya, and daughter. The fact that he is blind does not seem to be much of an obstacle. He lost his vision as a young boy when sparks from fireworks burned his eyes.
Youssef has developed another problem with his eyes, however. He’s experiencing a burning sensation and his eyes keep tearing. Thus begins this man’s physical and emotional journey from blindness to sight in a gripping cautionary tale that warns: be careful what you ask for.
A wealthy uncle provides Youssef the means to go to a specialist in Paris. The doctor is, at first, concerned that Youssef’s problems are caused by a cancerous tumor behind his eye. A biopsy confirms the tumor is in fact benign and, even better, his eyes are showing sensitivity to light, which means surgery could heal his blindness.
Youssef’s stay at a Paris hospital is at once unbearably long (he misses his family terribly) and a dreamlike whirlwind. He befriends a strange man, Mr. Morteza, who is constantly nibbling on walnuts and spouting prophetic commentary. It is during time spent with Mr. Morteza that we discover Youssef’s connection to the willow tree. Youssef believes willow trees bring him luck because he was given one when he was at a school for the blind. As he grew, the tree grew, connecting them for life.
Bespectacled and in awe of the sights he beholds, Youssef is released from the Paris hospital a new man. One of the most dramatic scenes in the film occurs when Youssef returns to Iran. When he emerges from the airport terminal he is greeted by dozens of well-wishers. In silent, real-time we watch Youssef see all these people — cousins, professors, students, neighbors — for the very first time. We then realize, along with Youssef, that he’s never seen his wife and daughter’s faces. It is a palpable, spellbinding few moments in a film that captures the gravity of what is happening to Youssef.
Throughout the film we witness Youssef experiencing many firsts, both wonderful and intense. What at first seems to be just an overwhelmed and confused Youssef soon proves to be a much more serious and tragic turn for Youssef and his family, plunging him into a whole new kind of darkness.
Majidi’s film is a marvel of duality: remarkably subtle, yet undeniably dramatic; stunningly beautiful, yet painfully tragic; an expression of light and color, contrasted with darkness. Along with the obvious metaphors of vision and blindness, there are explorations of pain, faith, privilege, desire, and regret.
A worthy film, Academy-Award nominee and veteran writer/director Majidi has created another tour de force. And Parvis Parastui is excellent as Youssef, portraying his journey with understated depth. Check it out when it opens March 7 at the Hollywood Theatre, located at 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. in Portland. For more information, including complete dates and show times, call (503) 281-4215 or visit <www.hollywoodtheatre.org>.