“It was really only a little linnet singing outside his window, but it was so long since the giant had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world.” (The Selfish Giant)
One of the finest productions of the Iranian neorealism, The Song of Sparrows (2008), directed by Majid Majidi, presents a complex web of modernization from where there is hardly any scope of escape. In fact, as Majidi too felt, the progress of human civilization should be at the service of humanity and yet we often find ourselves conquered by it. The result is that with each passing day, we are slowly drifting away from our ethics and human values. Majidi himself states regarding the film:
“My aim was to say that we must return to our human essence or else face a major disaster in the future.”
For Majidi, as we have often witnessed in Children of Heaven or Baran, the human soul is the ultimate frontier: all of us are engaged in a continuous struggle for survival while dreaming a “more comfortable” future. In our continuous struggle in the materialistic world, we often tend to ignore the the essence of love, kindness and human bonding.
The film opens with Karim, played by Reza-Naji, working in an ostrich farm, when he hears that his daughter, Haniyeh, has lost her hearing aid. Later, though the hearing aid is found, Karim learns that it is broken and a new one would cost around 400$. Incidentally, one day an ostrich escapes from the farm and Karim loses his job. In an effort to replace the hearing aid, Karim comes to Tehran and a businessman mistakenly considers him to be a private taxi operator. Such private taxi operations, in a bike, are technically illegal in Tehran but it is still one of the most important means of transportation to navigate the crowded streets of the city. Karim soon discovers that he can earn more if he sticks to the profession of a private taxi operator than working as an unskilled labourer in the ostrich farm. Karim learns that what is considered as a junk in Tehran would be very valuable in his village. On the very first day, Karim picks up a tossed out TV aerial and fixes it in his own house for a better TV reception. Gradually, Karim starts bringing back various items, from a framed blue door to window panes, and soon gets entangled in the cobwebs of capitalism. On the other hand, Karim’s son, Hussein, and his friends, clear a village water reservoir, in an effort to become millionaires by breeding and selling thousands of gold fishes. Although Karim considers Hussein’s plan of breeding gold fishes as absurd and a waste of time, he fails to analyse his own growing interests of collecting junks from Tehran which has completely blocked a section of his house. In a particular scene, shot from an aerial view, Karim is shown carrying a blue door on his back and walking alone in an arid plain. Majidi probably hints at Karim’s complete alienation from his family, almost a prisoner behind the closed blue door, in search of materialistic pleasures. Soon after, the wall of junk collapses and Karim has a serious injury. While lying in bed for months, Karim starts observing the same familial incidents from a different perspective. Later, when the container carrying the gold fishes is broken, the boys decide to push the gold fishes in a nearby stream rather than watching them die. Fortunately, Hussein and his friends carry a goldfish in a plastic packet and drop it in the reservoir, in hope of a new beginning. This entire episode strings a chord in Karim’s heart as he starts looking beyond the wall of material possession, a wall that often alienates us from the wider world of humanity. Karim sings one of the most important yet ignored truths of the world:
“Our eyes are crying,
Our flowers have withered.
I remember the past days,
The good old days;
The world is a lie…the world is a dream.”
In an effort to prosecute the trespassers trying to intervene in his world of material possession, Karim fails to realize that he has unwittingly ended up as a prisoner within the four walls of capitalism. Karim’s growing obsession with various material possessions create a further process of alienation, both from his family members and from the product of his labour, as Karl Marx writes in “Estranged Labour”:
“An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man.”
In fact, the junk collected from Tehran are signifiers of Karim’s commodity fetishism that tricks him into believing that the inanimate objects will yield their natural character to satisfy his (never ending) desires. This claustrophobic surrounding almost sustains his being to a certain extent but eventually, the walls fail to exert their captivating influence on him when he hears the song of a sparrow. It has been so long since Karim had heard a bird sing in his room that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world.
An important binary that Majidi deals with is the presence of the ostrich and the sparrow, two birds which are distinctively opposite in a number of ways. The huge ostrich eggs and the bird itself connote the notion of renewal and rebirth at springtime and have their own iconic significance. Throughout the film, whenever Karim notices ostriches or their eggs, he is reminded of something transcendent beyond his own immediate surroundings; notably when he decided to return the refrigerator to the warehouse. On the other hand, by contrast, the sparrows are smaller in size and live in a community. If ostriches are an emblem of majesty, the sparrows represent youth and vitality. In other words, by the end of the film, the majesty of the ostrich and the song of the sparrow are harmoniously juxtaposed in Karim’s world, almost in an effort to revive his daily rhythms of life.
The Song of Sparrows presents a collage of impressions that hint at the larger picture of a spiritual and economic crisis around us. While fixing the antenna, brought from Tehran, Karim reminds his wife of the days when they lay on the roof to gaze at the night sky. In other words, Majidi probably suggests that it is very difficult to find our way out if the patterns of stars are lost. At the end of the film, the return of the ostrich is probably a signifier of Karim’s return to the roots of humanity. Although the non-intrusive background music of Hossein Alizadeh often presents a melancholic feeling to the narrative, the film is not only about suffering and passivity. Instead, the film recommends that Karim’s indomitable energy can only be appreciated if he achieves a cooperative harmony between nature and humanity. In a world governed by the norms of capitalism, it is important to listen and appreciate the song of sparrows or of a linnet because they indicate the arrival of spring after a long and cold winter.