One of the most exciting aspects of the Abbas Kiarostami retrospective currently under way at the Gene Siskel Film Center (and which runs through the end of October) is that it contains many of the early short films Kiarostami made for Iran’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Youth. Whether or not they feature children (though many of them do), these works showcase Kiarostami’s deep understanding of how children perceive the world around them. In The Colors (1976), a personal favorite of mine, the filmmaker conveys the enthusiasm kids experience when learning to identify the different hues that define their environment. In Breaktime (1972), Kiraostami forgoes narrative development to convey how children often prioritize certain errant details over “major” ones. The director later claimed the film was more formally audacious than his masterpiece Taste of Cherry (1997), which suggests that many of Kiraostami’s innovations derive from his affinity with children.
The great Iranian filmmaker was probably the most accomplished director of children after Yasujiro Ozu. The kids in his movies—even the bratty ones, like the boys who appear in Ten (2002) and Certified Copy (2010)—are always thoroughly plausible in their behavior. More importantly, one feels that the filmmaker is trying to accommodate their experience rather than impose one on them. This may explain why Kiarostami’s documentaries about children, such as First Graders (1984) and ABC Africa (2001), are so insightful. At their best the films suggest unmediated records of experiences and feelings that most adult viewers have lost access to.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of major films about children. Conspicuously absent from this list are any films by François Truffaut, who frequently visited the subject of childhood throughout his career, and Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), perhaps the most successfully poetic film ever made about a child’s experience. Still, I’m glad to showcase something by Jacques Doillon, a perennially underrated filmmaker in this country who ranks among the great living filmmakers when it comes to directing kids. His Ponette (1996) features an extraordinary performance by a four-year-old girl—it’s certainly the equal of any of the films mentioned here.
Record of a Tenement Gentleman A warm comedy of life in postwar Japan, warm in the way only Yasujiro Ozu’s cold and formal style can be (1947). A boy, found abandoned at a Tokyo train station, is put under the reluctant care of a middle-aged woman who makes her living in the black market. She pushes him away, but always he comes back, sad eyed and silent. Slowly a certain affection grows between the two, as Ozu deflects the sentimental thrust of the material by taking it all in through his passive, profoundly accepting point of view. —Dave Kehr
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee’s child’s-eye view of southern bigotry gains something in its translation to the screen by Robert Mulligan, who knows exactly where to place the camera to catch a child’s subjective experience (1962). Mulligan even wrings a respectable performance from Gregory Peck (he won an Oscar for the role) as the country lawyer who defends a Black man on a trumped-up murder charge. Peck’s icy remove works for once—as a kid’s idea of a parent, he’s frighteningly effective. With Mary Badham (John’s sister), Philip Alford, and Robert Duvall. —Dave Kehr
The Long Day Closes The 1992 conclusion of Terence Davies’s second autobiographical trilogy may not achieve the sublime heights of parts one and two (which made up1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives), but it’s still a powerful film, possibly even a great one—the sort of work that can renew one’s faith in movies. Part three chronicles his life in working-class Liverpool between the ages of seven and 11, a period he compresses into the years 1955 and 1956, but Davies focuses less on plot or memory as they’re usually understood than on the memory of emotions and subjective consciousness. Music, lighting, elaborate camera movements, and the soundtracks of other films are among the tools he uses in relation to the basic settings of home, street, school, church, pub, and movie theater. Davies emphasizes the continuities and discontinuities between these places and the emotions they evoke, creating a consistent sense of religious illumination and transfiguration. What he does with the strains of “Tammy” in one climactic sequence and with the drift of moving clouds in another are alone worth the price of admission. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Apple The 1998 first feature of Samira Makhmalbaf (the eldest daughter of Iranian writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who furnished the script and edited) is a wonder—a comic, lyrical, and “politically incorrect” poetic docudrama so acutely focused in its characters and ethics that it can afford to be relaxed about them, all the more remarkable coming from a director still in her teens. The film reenacts the true story of illiterate 11-year-old twin sisters, kept in their house from birth until a social worker discovered them and enabled them to step outside. Their encounters with the world outside their home and the neighborhood’s reaction to them are the twin subjects that keep this feature going, exposing how involved people are in their neighbors’ lives, for better and for worse, in everyday communal Iran. (The twins and most of the other participants play themselves.) —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Petit Freres “Because I failed high school, I have always been on the fringe,” veteran French director Jacques Doillon once remarked, and the five young teens in his 2000 feature seem equally alienated, forced to fend for themselves in a world that offers them no stability. Talia flees her stepfather, an apparent pedophile, to hang out with four Arab and African boys, who immediately steal her pit bull; one of them, who’s developed a crush on her, tries to recover the dog after some older boys use it for dogfights. The youths have little outlet for their energies other than petty crime, and Doillon effectively captures their flailings with tight close-ups in which the movement of the camera, the characters, or both is as aimless as it is rapid. Occasionally, surreal images underline the absurdity of their lives, like the kids on a moped seen making off with a mannequin wearing a wedding dress. —Fred Camper v