Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review – The Apple

January 19, 2011

The Apple – Iran, 1998

There is perhaps nothing that gets the blood boiling faster than insinuations of child neglect or abuse. The mere hint of it is enough to turn friends into strangers and some communities into possible lynch mobs. I would venture that director Zahra Naderi was well aware of this when he began his 1998 film The Apple with brief glimpses of two twelve-year-old girls clutching to the bars that keep them locked inside their house. We also get quick glances of their parents, a man who looks as if he became a father later than most and his wife, a blind woman whose face remains covered for the entire film. I remember thinking that something was wrong with this picture. I was meant to. In a way, I became one of the names we see signing a letter imploring the authorities to do something to help these two poor girls, and I felt relieved when such help arrived.

And yet almost as quickly as the film builds up our suspicions and concerns, it begins to chip away at them piece by piece. We learn that the family is struggling with poverty in a poor area of Tehran and that the girl’s father ekes out a living selling salt and bread. We also see that he is a kind man who for reasons unexplained yet completely understandable has become resigned to the life that they now live. “It’s fate,” he tells the social worker assigned to make sure the two girls are safe. “It’s destiny.” He doesn’t say this like a man determined to flaunt authority; instead, he says it in a way that makes us suspect that it is a philosophy borne out of years of hardship and disappointment, yet one that enables him to get through life without giving in to bitterness.

In her own way, the man’s wife also shares her husband’s perspective on life. However, while his response to it is to accept it, his wife’s is to withdraw from it, to lock herself inside her home as if the outside world were filled with nothing but the most vile and dangerous of individuals. When she goes to pick up her daughters from the child welfare department, it matters more to her that their heads are covered up as soon as possible than it does that they seem to have enjoyed their time out of the house. Later, the father will explain his and his wife’s fears of the neighborhood boys taking advantage of their daughters. I’m sure there’s a back story here, one that is particularly heartbreaking. However, we don’t learn it. In truth, we don’t have to. Their fear speaks volumes.

All of this is not to say that The Apple is a depressing film, for it is also the story of the first day of real discovery in the lives of two delightful young girls. Just what does one do when the doors that have been locked for most of your life are suddenly opened and you’re told to go out and play? I imagine we’d all do what they do – walk out, look around a bit, and then return to the place we’ve known for so long. It’s only when they realize their world has permanently changed that they begin to explore what to them must be a strange and new environment. Like many children, they’re awkward playmates at first. However, somehow we’re sure they’ll get the hang of it.

The Apple has the look and feel of a documentary, and in many ways it is. Naderi’s camera is often in motion, and it sometimes lags behind the characters, as if they moved too fast for him. In one scene, it’s as if he is locked out of the family home, and the camera moves upward and peaks into the family’s property from a perched position, as if the cameraman had just climbed a ladder. The message is clear. The audience is very much an unwanted observer, just as much of a nuisance as the neighbors whose written accusations have turned the family’s world upside down. At other times, Naderi focuses his camera on the tired aged face of the father, and we see what a man looks like after a lifetime of quietly fighting a losing battle against poverty. When he is told he has to make sure his daughters get an education, he teaches them to cook rice and wash clothes. In truth, it’s all he can think of doing.

Adding to the sense that we are witnessing something real are the facts that The Apple is based on a true story and that the cast is playing themselves, something that is not uncommon in Iranian films. These are really the two girls who were kept inside for so long, and this is really the man who had to suffer accusations that no father can easily shake. It’s clear from the film that the charges that were leveled against him and his wife continue to sting. It may also explain why the girls’ mother, Soghra, never shows her face. Some have said that the actors appear nervous. I suspect they did when they were going through this in real life as well.

There are things I’ll remember about The Apple for quite a long time. The charity of the surrounding community. The joyful smiles of Zahra and Massoumeh as they wind their way along the streets of Tehran for the first time. The determination of Mrs. Mohamdi to set things right and her steadfast belief that education must come from both inside and outside the family. Not all of her methods would be considered acceptable in other countries, but there’s no denying their effectiveness. And then there are the film’s final moments, one’s filled with the promise and hope that this day indeed has marked a turning point for this family. They certainly deserve one. Quite simply, The Apple is unlike any film I’ve ever seen. (on DVD in Region 3)

4 stars

*The Apple is in Farsi with English subtitles.

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