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A film like this is a joy to watch. It is vivid on so many levels that I cannot even recall the experience of reading subtitles, though I know that I must have done so. On one level, it is fascinating to get a glimpse of life in South Asia. The action ranges from outlying neighborhoods to wealthy suburbs to the big city and its familiar-yet-strange high-rise architecture. We see amazing similarities to our own culture, with the aspect of class division and alienation magnified.
Ali and Zhara, our 9- and 8-year-old heroes, are children in a poor family in India or Pakistan (would be my best guess). Their father is a deeply religious man and an extremely hard worker. Their mother is weak from a recent birth and from overwork.
The action begins innocently enough: Ali picks up Zhara's shoes from the cobbler who has repaired the shabby pink slippers. At the market, Ali leaves the shoes outside while he gathers potatoes for his family; and the shoes are stolen. Knowing his father has no money for a few weeks, Ali refuses to share this disturbing fact with anyone except Zhara. He swears her to secrecy, and they both adopt some lifestyle changes in order to keep their parents from knowing.
It's not fear of a beating that keeps them sworn not to tell, but the knowledge that their father is trying hard to make ends meet and simply cannot replace the shoes for a few weeks. To protect him, and themselves, they go to extremes with complete devotion and earnestness. There is a depth to the children's desire to protect their father that makes their teary-eyed scenes so much more significant than if they were just trying to avoid a spanking.
Ali and Zhara work out a sharing arrangement of Ali's single pair of sneakers: Zhara goes to school in the morning and sprints home to hand the shoes off to Ali, who then sprints back to school. This makes them both very good runners-and enables Ali to enter a boy's running contest, the third prize or which is a new pair of sneakers.
He doesn't win the sneakers, but you feel throughout the exciting footrace, reminiscent of Breaking Away and Chariots of Fire, that somehow Ali will resolve his crisis through this running. And so he does, but not in any foreseeable way-the tension is not diminished, and the basic connection with this man-boy is strong regardless of our knowing the film will end happily. Let me put it this way: knowing that there will be a happy ending to Children of Heaven feels like prescience, not a jaded expectation of the Disney-like feel-good ending. We know he will win not because the script is in any way transparent, but because we truly believe in him. Perhaps it is the foreign setting, the simple production, or the lack of stars that makes the "feel-good" feeling in this movie such a fresh feeling.
Caught between adulthood-at 9!-and childhood, Ali makes a fascinating character study. He is young enough to work tearful pleading to his advantage, but he is also old enough to support his father's livelihood, not just in elbow grease, but in savvy that outstrips his years.
This wonderful viewing experience leaves a feeling of lightness
and returns the viewer to his or her life-for indeed the viewer
is transported into the story-with a gladsome heart that may
inspire good dreams.