Woman as the Object of Desire: Notes Toward a Reading of Baran
by Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson is a writer and filmmaker living in Carbondale, Illinois.
Throughout the history of Iranian cinema artistic intention has been consistently stifled by outside forces. Government censorship has long controlled specific elements of the filmmaking process, such as implementing the prohibition of physical contact between men and women within the context of a motion picture. While this limitation poses certain obvious difficulties, Baran (Majid Majidi, 2001) stands as a moving example of the vision of a singular artist capable of emerging such a restrictive creative environment. The film appears at first glance as a typical love story, involving the unfolding of a male/female relationship; but further analysis brings to light the complexities that this particular love story entails and, more importantly, the manner in which Majidi is able to create such a story while being bound within the confines of said censorship.
The focal point of Baran is the rather unorthodox relationship that blossoms between two young workers in a construction site in present-day Tehran. Lateef is an Iranian worker whose duty it is to serve tea and play gopher under the guidance of the foreman, Memar. Memar acts as a sort of father-figure to Lateef, controlling his earnings and providing him with shelter after the presumed loss of his parents. Ignoring government rule, Memar provides illegal employment for a number of Afghan worker. When one such worker, Najaf, is injured on the job, his daughter, Baran, is sent as his replacement. Knowing that Memar would not allow employment for women, Baran is disguised as a young man and given the name Rahmat. Once Rahmat proves unable to handle the sort of work that is required she is given Lateef’s job and, consequently, Lateef is relegated to working manual labor. Lateef’s initial response to this is hatred and, unknowing to the fact that Rahmat is actually a woman, he even hits her on one occasion. It is only after Lateef discovers the truth about Rahmat that he is given a new sense of perspective about life and love.
One of the most interesting aspects of this particular love story is the fact that Lateef and Baran never partake in a single conversation with one another; but their communication, though entirely nonverbal, contains a great poignancy. The two gain an understanding of one another through simple observation. When Baran is performing her duty of serving tea to the workers, she anonymously leaves a steaming cup for Lateef, even including the exact amount of sugar that he normally takes. This sense of kindness is not lost on Lateef. He recognizes the act as a sign of affection from Baran and is immediately inspired with the faith that she may harbor feelings of mutual love. Another instance of this nonverbal affection is apparent in the interaction that the two engage in with the feeding of wild birds upon the rooftop of the work site. Lateef frequents this area to hide portions of his earnings behind a loose brick in the wall, unknowing to the fact that Baran is accustomed to coming to the same area to feed birds and sit in quiet contemplation. When Lateef mistakenly encounters Baran in this act, he makes no effort to disrupt her. Instead, he watches her from a distance, content with simply gaining further understanding of the inner-workings of this mysterious young woman.
Regardless of the beauty of this less than typical relationship, one must question the motivation behind Lateef’s pursuance of this character that he knows almost nothing about. Given our limited knowledge of Lateef’s past, it is difficult to tell whether or not this type of behavior is consistent for him; that is, whether or not Lateef is a hopeless romantic by nature and blindly falls in love with unknown women as a matter of course. One can only speculate as to the real motivations behind this endeavor. It may be, given the relative youth of Lateef’s age, that this is his first exposure with a person of the opposite sex and, as a result, he is stricken with the thought of first love. It may also be, considering Lateef’s constant exposure to the men at his workplace, that he is simply in need of feminine companionship. Of course, the extent of Lateef’s affection for Baran is so great that one may only be left to conclude that the levels of communication are completely esoteric, incomprehensible to the outsider looking in.
This relationship is made all the more interesting through the very fact of its one-sidedness. Within this context Lateef is placed in the subservient position, willing to forsake all for a single taste of her affection. Baran, by contrast, becomes the object of desire that Lateef is intent upon bringing into his world and gaining an understanding of. In this line of thought it appears as if Lateef places Baran in an almost fetishist position. His desire to be the recipient of her affection becomes an internal urge that blinds him from the external world and drives him to traverse stretches of both physical and emotional space in attempting to do so.
This lone endeavor to gain the acceptance of Baran proves to benefit Lateef in both spiritual and maturative ways. In the beginning of the film Lateef comes across as a fairly naïve young man, content with simply surviving under the guidance of Memar. Throughout the course of his obsession with Baran, however, Lateef is subject to an internal metamorphosis that transforms his naivety into a more complex understanding of life and love. The meaning that he gains from Baran begins to be expressed externally through acts of kindness to others. We see this in some small fashion when Lateef begins to feed the birds that meant so much to Baran. In the first part of the film Lateef is seen shooing the birds away each time he accesses the rooftop to make an addition to his hidden savings stash. Now it seems he has come to understand the worth and beauty of these creatures that he once thought to be simply a nuisance. The result of Lateef’s spiritual transformation is particularly exemplified, however, when he decides to donate his entire life savings to Baran’s father, Najaf. Though it seems that this decision could have been based solely on an attempt to achieve thankfulness from Baran, the fact that Lateef wishes the donation to remain anonymous proves this not to be so. And even though the money is intercepted and never actually reaches Najaf’s family, Lateef makes no effort to retrieve his savings or to make the intentions of his gift known to the family.
Throughout the film Majidi reinforces the poetic nature of this story through equally poetic imagery. The most effective of these come to realization toward the end of the film when Lateef has finally made his way to Najaf’s house; and more importantly, to Baran. Sitting on a bench outside of the family’s home, Lateef watches a curtain sway gracefully over the entranceway. He removes his cap and places it on the bench beside him. When he rises to assist the family in loading their belongings into the vehicle, the camera slowly zooms into to reveal one of Baran’s hair pins attached to his cap. This scene beautifully epitomizes Lateef’s relationship to Baran, symbolizing in a sense the elusive nature of this woman. Further, when the family is carrying their belongings out to the vehicle and Baran drops a crate of fruit onto the ground, Lateef promptly assists her in retrieving the fruit from the mud. This scene is the closest we come to seeing direct emotional contact between the two. When Lateef and Baran look into one another’s eyes here there is a sudden understanding of their mutual love. Once this is acknowledged, however, Baran drops her veil over her face and abruptly walks away from Lateef, seemingly in an effort to save both of them from an involvement that could never fully exist. The final shot of the film is arguably the most emotionally powerful. For several minutes the camera focuses on the footprint Baran left behind in the mud as the gentle rain slowly covers it to the point of indecipherability. The camera assumes the gaze of Lateef here, and in his place the viewer is filled with an overwhelming sense of loss.
Majidi is on par with Kiarostami in terms of poetic ability. Both of these artists are primarily concerned with the conveyance and exploration of beauty within the cinematic medium. While their respective styles are very different (for instance, Kiarostami has an affinity for extremely lengthy long-shots while Majidi, for the most part, does not), there are certain similarities between the two that are apparent within the context of Baran, e.g. the final shot of the film is characteristic of Kiarostami’s visual style. Further similarities may be found within the storyline of Majidi’s film; the most obvious is the extreme nature of Lateef’s search for Baran: in traversing the countryside in search of Baran, Lateef may be seen as reminiscent of the young boy in Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986). Both of these characters are uncertain of where their journey may take them but are obstinate enough to continue without question.
Like many great works of the Iranian cinema, Majidi’s film has failed to gain wide acceptance with American audiences. Its overall impetus functions upon a subtle execution of style and content that seems sadly out of pace with our present culture’s obsession with the likes of Tarantino and Raimi. But the film stands, in all its quiet certitude, as a prime example of the beauty capable of emerging from this volatile and restrictive political environment.