THE WILLOW TREENR
What happens in Majid Majidi’s films is driven purely by the spiritual state of the protagonist, so much so that the trilling of a bird becomes an expression of the inner life. A cup of tea left untouched is an abandonment. The water in a garden pool, imbricated with the reflections of surrounding trees, is a shimmering sign of family devotion. In The Willow Tree, darkness represents the one hope for renewal.
Youssef (Parvis Parastui), Majidi’s protagonist, has been blind since childhood. He lives with his wife and child in a comfortable home with a patio that overlooks a carefully tended garden. By every measure, Youssef’s life is idyllic: He is successful in his work as an academic, and he is happy in his marriage to Roya (Roya Taymourian). When he suddenly becomes ill—his eyes begin to burn and tear—a well-heeled uncle offers to send him to France for treatment. While Youssef is at the hospital, his doctor discovers that his sight can be restored, but only after an operation that will require many weeks of recovery.
Despite the prospect of regaining his sight, Youssef soon becomes despondent because of his long separation from his family. That’s when Mr. Cashani (Ahmad Gawaheri) comes to visit—the man who eats walnuts. Walnut trees enjoy a mythical status in Iran; they’re sometimes planted to celebrate the birth of a child. Mr. Cashani is obviously an avatar, and his appearance signals yet another blessing in Youssef’s life: At each turn, Youssef has been given everything he needs to live well. His mother, with whom he still shares a close relationship, cared for him as a child, and now his wife provides a cloak of affection and safety for him. Youssef’s baby daughter represents a source of joy, and hope for his old age.
Like Majidi’s The Color of Paradise (1999), the story of a blind boy, The Willow Tree opens on a black screen. For a few moments, we hear only conversation, and inhabit the world as Youssef does. It’s an incredibly intimate experience, but the spell is broken when Majidi switches to an objective view of his protagonist. Immediately, we are hurled into a world of color and motion. Birdsong, and the sound of the brook beside which Youssef and his daughter are sitting, recede. In comparison to the black screen, to the hegemony of voices and of nature, the image is astonishingly inadequate. Thrust into this material world, we are given a preview of what Youssef will feel when he regains his sight.
The Willow Tree represents a departure for Majidi, whose previous films, including Baran (2001) and Children of Heaven (1997)—the first Iranian film to be nominated for a Foreign-Language Oscar—focused mostly on less affluent Iranians and on children. The larger transformation, however, appears to be Majidi’s relative skepticism: Once his sight is restored, Youssef’s hunger for the material world explodes, and he becomes prey to the sensations which lead, inevitably, to spiritual poverty. In Majidi’s eyes, Youssef is Adam fallen from Paradise.
Youssef’s blindness is obviously metaphorical and, on the surface, The Willow Tree is a parable, a warning to those who, like Youssef, fail to recognize the Paradise of their own lives. On the other hand, Majidi’s films are so nuanced, it is impossible to stay with first impressions. Here, the filmmaker compels us to see in the dark, to recognize beauty in the absence of color and light. While Majidi may forgive us for being blinded by the material world, as he forgives Youssef, he also implies that there is no palpable redemption in a return to the inner life. At the end of The Willow Tree, Youssef is in a downward spiral, seduced by the prospect that all he once was unable to possess because of his blindness now lies within his grasp. Actually, objective reality proves far more ephemeral. Only in the dark, Majidi insists, in the inner chambers of our hearts, do we see clearly.