Monday, December 08, 2014

Keys of Heaven: Innocence Martyred

You could say Majid and Adel have student deferments. They are fifteen and twelve, respectively. Of course, that is hardly too young to die for Revolutionary Iran, especially when it was locked in mortal combat with Iraq. They might live in an Orwellian state prosecuting an apparently endless war, but the brothers lead desperate Dickensian lives in Finnish-Iranian director Hamy Ramezan’s short film, Keys of Heaven (trailer here), which starts a special three-day engagement tomorrow in Los Angeles.

It is in fact 1984. Majid and Adel are homeless in the great Islamist republic, but the elder brother insists they keep attending school. Should they drop out, they would be prime candidates to join the 500,000 other Iranian children who served in the Iran-Iraq War. They work late into the night as street hawkers to earn money for a more permanent relocation, because for some reason, Majid has cut all ties to their widower father. Unfortunately, the dissolute old Kiamarz still has the brothers’ identification papers, which they will need to sit for their final exams.

Keys is a dark film with a bracingly bitter twist that Ramezan skillfully implies rather than bashing the audience’s heads with it. The film very definitely protests the use of child soldiers, but it acknowledges (obliquely) even worse crimes. It also depicts the ruthlessness of the Ayatollah’s thought police in no uncertain terms. Yet, the brothers’ relationship is the engine driving the film.

Salar Ashtiyani gives an extraordinarily honest performance as the gaunt Majid. The young actor maintains a brittle intensity while subtly turning his big revelations. Yazdan Akhoondi’s Adel reliably serves as a wide-eyed picture of innocence and Shaghayeh Djodat brings considerable nuance and sensitivity to bear as the teacher who tries to help the brothers, but lacks a full understanding of their situation.

Filmed in Turkey with Farsi dialogue, Keys feels absolutely genuine. The period details look right and the atmosphere of paranoia is quite tangible. It could be called a powerful coming-of-age tale in a country where vulnerable children, like the brothers, frequently do not live long enough to come of age. Another fine example of diasporic Iranian filmmaking, Keys of Heaven is highly recommended when it screens this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons (12/9-12/11) at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles.