Their gang

Children's charm with an edge from Majid Majidi.

DESPITE INTERNATIONAL CRITICAL hoopla about Iranian film, the only Iranian picture to make a significant ripple on US screens to date has been Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (1995). Majid Majidi's Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven, an understated story of childhood, could very well become the second. Its emphatic narrative gives the film a Western-friendly framework without losing the naturalistic eye and lolling rhythm that give the best Iranian films their richness.

Young Ali loses his little sister's shoes in the market. Too embarrassed to tell his poor parents, who can't afford another pair, he makes a pact with little Zahra to share his sneakers until he can find her shoes. So every day, Zahra gets out of morning school and tears through streets and alleys to reach her brother before his afternoon school starts; she hands off the shoes, and Ali races to beat the bell, jumping gutters and navigating the twisting lanes to his school. Obviously this can't continue, so he hits upon a plan: The third-place prize in a foot race is a new pair of shoes, and he's determined to take it.

Children of Heaven

directed by Majid Majidi

opens March 12 at Metro

Majidi, like his compatriots Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, captures the immediacy and essence of kids: proud, emotional, spirited, and disarmingly sincere. Though he dotes on the kids in a few too many precious close-ups, the young actors bring enough spark and spunk to their roles to remind us that, sweetness and innocence aside, they too have their moments of frustration and anger. Their body language communicates everything: While lined up at a school assembly, Zahra tries to hide her floppy, threadbare sneakers from her classmates, who sport pretty dress shoes and flowery flats, until a teacher praises her for wearing appropriate footwear to the upcoming sporting event. She beams, and her shuffling feet take a confident stance.

Amidst such delightful moments are privileged scenes of family life—delicately observed relationships between brother and sister, brother and father, father and mother. Majidi keeps his ambitions modest; you won't see any of the complex interplay between actors and characters or adventures in narrative deconstruction that you see in other recent Iranian arrivals. But even as he builds to the climactic foot race (quite unexpectedly turned into a nail-biting contest), the film continues to reveal its wealth of discreet surprises.

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