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The supposed intrigue in Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon is that it gives Western audiences a rare, sympathetic glimpse of contemporary Iran--a country and a society demonized here since the late ayatollah took those hostages and the evening news started showing demonstrators stomping on the American flag in the public square.

Fine. It may be high time that we insular Yankees cast off our old, certain antagonisms and reassess some other spots on the planet. Unfortunately, this is not a film to open many doors--or eyes. Employing a latter-day, mutant form of neorealism, Panahi spends 85 minutes (85 going on 850, we're sorry to say) showing us how one seven-year-old girl loses the money her mother gives her to buy a goldfish for New Year's and how she finally gets it back.

Simplicity itself, no? A metaphor for loss and redemption? A meditation on the charms of the unsullied heart? Maybe. But neither the girl's plucky quest in the streets of Tehran, nor her tears, nor the tidy cast of tormentors who turn into friends can deliver The White Balloon from tedium. With all due acknowledgment of cultural gaps, real or imagined, the thing is plain dull. A "children's film" clearly calculated to attract grownups, it threatens to put both audiences into a state of high fidget.

Little Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani), a waif with big eyes, has her minimalist adventures. Snake charmers on the corner con her out of the precious 500-toman note (worth about $2), then unexpectedly relent. When the bill falls through a cellar grate, the belligerent shirtmaker next door (Mohammad Bahktiari) ignores the girl's entreaties, then relents. The man at the pet shop jacks up the price of the plump fish Razieh wants, then he, too, gives in. A kindly old woman, the girl's big brother Ali (Mohsen Kalifi) and an empathetic soldier (Mohammad Shahani) all eventually take up the little girl's cause. We're supposed to be charmed, and we're expected to find all this fascinating. Many will find themselves peering at their wristwatches.

In possible defense of watching this paint dry, it should be noted that Iranian filmmakers work under one of the world's strictest censorship codes. Islamic law prohibits depicting marriage on screen unless the actors are actually man and wife; female characters always get short shrift; the grading of a finished Iranian film's government "screening permit" determines the strength of its bookings and the media's access to it. Such restrictions have always forced artists toward symbolism, shading and obfuscation--the white balloon of the title fairly shouts "innocence," in every sense of the term--but they don't always dictate inertia. Alas, Mr. Panahi barely gets off the dime.--Gallo

The White Balloon. Screenplay by Abbes Kiarostami. Directed by Jafar Panahi. With Aida Mohammadkhani, Moshen Kalifi and Mohammed Bahktiari.

 
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