Politics and Power Taint Innocent Iranian Film

Cannes favorite 'The White Balloon' arrives in the US

'THE White Balloon'' is a gentle, understated comedy about a little girl, a goldfish, and a bank note stuck in a storm drain. So why is it arriving on American screens amid a burst of politically tinged controversy?

The answer lies with two governments: those of Iran, where the movie was produced, and the United States, where it's opening after winning major prizes at last spring's Cannes filmfest.

American authorities have recently hit Iran with destabilization efforts and economic embargoes, after charging the nation with terrorism and development of nuclear weapons. In what seems an odd form of retaliation, Iran has taken the battle to the movie front - withdrawing ''The White Balloon'' from the upcoming Academy Awards race, and denying permission for director Jafar Panahi to promote his picture in the US.

This puts ''The White Balloon'' into the distinguished company of ''Ju Dou,'' a dark-toned melodrama that China tried to pull from the Oscar competition in 1989, and ''Man of Iron,'' a blend of fiction and documentary that Poland wanted to withdraw in 1980.

In both of those cases the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stood its ground, holding that it could honor any film it wanted.

If the same happens again, Iran will have itself to blame, since it officially submitted ''The White Balloon'' to be its contender for the nomination as best foreign-language film, and the selection process is already under way.

Ironically, none of this geopolitical squabbling has anything to do with the content of Panahi's movie, a small-scale comedy with a childlike charm reflecting Iran's long tradition of youth-oriented filmmaking. Set in Tehran on New Year's Day, it centers on a spunky little girl who's determined to enhance her family's celebration by buying a handsome goldfish she's spotted in a nearby store.

Lending the film unusual cinematic interest is Panahi's decision to present the story in real time - not condensing or stretching the action as most movies do, but unfolding it in the same hour-and-a-half that the events would occupy in real life.

Since the city is about to close its shops for 13 days of celebration, the suspense becomes downright Hitchcockian when our seven-year-old heroine loses the money her mother has reluctantly provided, and finds herself relying on the kindness of strangers as the clock ticks away and her deadline draws perilously near.

While its appeal stems largely from its likable performances and unpredictable plot twists, ''The White Balloon'' does have a modicum of political substance, presented so subtly that moviegoers might miss it if they don't think for a moment about the film's title.

At first this appears to be a minor detail, especially since no white balloon plays a significant part in the story until the final scenes, and even then it's hardly a major ingredient.

So why did the filmmakers decide to name their movie after it? The picture's American distributor, October Films, suggests it's because Iranians see whiteness as a symbol of purity, and Panahi applies this metaphor to his child characters.

But a more interesting explanation may be that the last character to help the heroine - a balloon merchant - is not a native Iranian, but one of the many Afghan refugees who fled to Iran when civil war erupted in their own country. Like the little girl who navigates a city of grown-ups on a quest few adults would appreciate, he's not quite at home in his environment, and while he faces life calmly and quietly, he's a touching symbol of the displacements and disgruntlements too often imposed by today's world.

Panahi directed ''The White Balloon'' from a screenplay by his former boss, filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose recent movies are even more imaginative and humane.

Kiarostami has pioneered a recent trend in Iranian cinema whereby the boundaries between fiction and documentary are blurred or even erased.

One example is ''Through the Olive Trees,'' which features scenes of a director trying to guide nonprofessional actors through a scene. Another is ''... And Life Goes On,'' about a filmmaker traveling through a real-life earthquake zone.

Iranian cinema is in a splendid state at the moment. What a pity the vicissitudes of politics and power won't let us enjoy its pleasures without distraction.

* The White Balloon'' is not rated. A scene involving snake charmers might be disturbing for very young children.

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