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IRANIAN COMING-OF-AGE TALE TRIUMPHS EVERY WAY.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

It's been another outstanding year for Iranian films, and Majid Majidi's ``Baran (Rain)'' ranks among the very best that have reached our shores.

An aesthetic triumph - cinematographer Mohammad Davudi has composed every single frame to an astonishingly textured, painterly perfection - that never fails to retain behavioral realism, it also extends Persian cinema's trademark humanism to an unusually upfront and relevant political matter.

And like many Iranian directors who have long couched their social observations in stories about young children to mollify their Islamic government's censors, Majidi is finally moving significantly up the age scale from his previous exports, ``Children of Heaven'' and ``The Color of Paradise.'' Reflecting the maturation of the country's whole film industry, ``Baran'' is the story of a young man, perhaps a teen-ager but maybe older, whose emotional growth has been stunted by both the theocracy's draconian separation of the sexes and his own cussed foolishness. But late though his sentimental education may be in coming, it is a beautiful and truly soul-stirring thing to watch.

We first encounter Latif (Hossein Abedini) taking a little time off on his early morning trip to the baker to spy on a young couple that's happily horsing around in a park. It's clear that he doesn't understand this kind of transaction between a man and a woman, and just as apparent that he longs to know more about such things.

Latif, who comes from somewhere else, lives and works at a large construction site in some eastern Iranian city. His job is to serve lunch and tea breaks to the all-male work force, and like everything else he does, he's not too good at it. The foreman Memar (Mohammad Amir Naji), a gruff but decent sort, holds on to most of Latif's wages, knowing that his friend's son will blow it all otherwise. When he's not screwing things up, the lad is often fighting with other workers over something that he screwed up.

When an Afghani refugee, of whom there are many illegally working on the building, is critically injured, a friend brings the man's young son Rahmat (Zahra Bahrami) in to take his father's place. Small and weak, Rahmat proves useless at hard labor. But when Memar gives the boy Latif's job, everybody is happy - the kid can cook! - except, of course, Latif.

After embarking on a petulant series of pranks against Rahmat, however, Latif catches a surreptitious glimpse of his nemesis in the pantry. Of course, Rahmat is really Baran, a girl pretending to be male so she can earn something for her desperate family.

And once he knows this, Latif is not just smitten but consumed. But how does a clueless Muslim guy express his feelings for a strange creature who's hiding her very identity? Well, goofishly, true to form, and surreptitiously to the point of not even registering on her heart's radar. But also, as the refugee and her family's situation grows more dire, Latif discovers a capacity for inner feeling and selflessness that runs so deep it borders on the shocking.

This is one of the greatest coming-of-age stories ever filmed, and Majidi gives it full respect. With equal artistry, the movie captures the amoral loveliness of nature and the dirty dignity of work, two other key aspects of life that Latif's eyes are literally opening up to for what appears to be the first time. And of course, ``Baran's'' political conscience is reflected in the dawning of the young man's own political consciousness. That it happens to address a refugee crisis the whole world is now, so unexpectedly, fixated upon speaks to the prescient universality of Majidi's vision.

``Baran'' will be playing for a week to qualify for Academy Award consideration. Plans are for the film to return to L.A. early next year, but I cannot urge you strongly enough to catch this finely chiseled beauty while you definitely can.

``BARAN''

(Rated PG: violence)

The stars: Hossein Abedini, Zahra Bahrami, Mohammad Amir Naji, Hossein Mahjoub Abbas Rahimi.

Behind the scenes: Written and directed by Majid Majidi. Produced by Fouad Nahas and Majidi. Released by Miramax Films.

Running time: One hour, 53 minutes.

Playing: Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

Our rating: Four stars
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Title Annotation:Review; L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 7, 2001
Words:703
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