THERE'S A Chaplinesque quality to "Baran," Majid Majidi's deeply touching film about migrant Afghan workers in Iran.
Like Charles Chaplin's silent movie classics of the early 20th century, "Baran" is eloquently visual. You could almost follow this story with your ears blocked.
There's the teenage Lateef (Hossein Abedini), a rather sulky worker on this site in Tehran. He's supposed to be the gofer who delivers tea and food to the workers -- many of whom are illegal migrants from Afghanistan.
These Afghans cross the border and work for almost nothing. Whenever a government inspector comes, they scurry into dark corners. But in no time they're back again. Ready for work. Ready to do anything.
Lateef does as little as he can. He's always talking back to people, complaining that he doesn't get enough respect and money. And he makes horrible tea.
Lateef's foreman, Memar (Mohammad Reza Naji), is an angry man. He's always screaming at everyone. No one works hard enough. Everyone (including that slacker Lateef) wants too much money. When he does hand out money, he reluctantly peels single bills from a wad of notes he keeps stashed in his pants pocket.
Along comes an intriguing stranger. Some kid called Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami) who has been brought in to replace poor old Najaf (Gholam Ali Bakhsi), who broke his leg in a fall. This kid can't lift bags of cement. Can't do anything physical. So Memar switches things around. Suddenly Lateef, who had it so easy, is hefting cement and that little squirt Rahmat has the tea-and-food job.
There are many revelations in this story best left unsaid. "Baran" moves from its initially punchy, tragicomic opening to a more poignant finale.
The performances are perfect. I absolutely adored the foreman, Memar. He's practically the Moe Howard of this bunch, always raging, all but slapping his workers like so many Stooges. Lateef is wonderfully cheeky. He has a recurring battle with one worker named Faraj (I'm afraid the credits aren't clear as to which actor plays him), whom he calls "the abominable snowman," at one point, when Rahmat accidentally spills white cement mix over Faraj.
As in Chaplin's films, humor and tragedy dance a wonderful tango throughout the movie. "Baran" is heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes apart, sometimes together. And thanks to cinematographer Mohammad Davudi's glowing images and Hassan Hassandoost's adroit, on-the-money editing, these moments really hit home.
In one such moment, Lateef makes a significant discovery. Rubbing powdery dust from his eyes, he walks toward the site bathroom to wash up. The curtain that serves as the door is billowing in the wind. Billowing with an almost tantalizing quality. It opens, it closes. Then it opens long enough for Lateef to see -- well, go see for yourself. Scenes like this attest to Majidi's rich vision. The director, who also made "Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Paradise," knows the power of an image. He's the real foreman.
-- Desson Howe BARAN (PG, 94 minutes) -- Contains some violence and occasionally colorful language. In Farsi with subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.