The goldfish flopping in the sun is an image typical of Majid Majidi's films, fable-like and seemingly simple even as it is also complex.
Near the end of The Song of Sparrows (Avaze gonjeshk-ha), the camera pulls out and up to show a barrel full of goldfish, spilled. For a brief instant, the shimmering throng is beautiful, and then you remember the fish are doomed, flipping and frantic in the sunlight, spectacularly out of place and yet strangely mundane. They are surrounded by boys who've spent months earning money to buy them. The children rush to salvage their prize, but see immediately they cannot. The camera cuts from one child to another, unable to look at each other but fixed -- tearful, panicked -- on their loss.
The moment is at once small and overwhelming, ordinary and metaphorical. As such, it is typical of Majid Majidi's films, fable-like and seemingly simple even as it is also complex. For here it is not only the boys whose lives are shaken, whose pain is palpable, but also the man who watches them. Karim (Reza Najie), the father of one of the children with the fish, is seated across the street in a truck. He says nothing and remains still, immobilized by a broken leg. But his face, weathered and unspeakably sad reveals much: as Karim looks out on the kids, he is also distressed -- but this time, not for himself.
On one level, this is the point of The Song of Sparrows, that Karim learns compassion, that he sees the effects of base hardship on others. He spends most of the film worrying about his own losses and occasional compensations. A worker on an ostrich farm at when the movie opens, he watches his charges -- tall, awkward, bizarrely gorgeous creatures -- as if they are aliens. They strut on long legs, their rough-skinned necks garish and their eggs gathered for sale. Even as the camera follows them closely, Karim keeps his distance from "those dumb ostriches": they're a business and they're ornery, to boot. When one of the ostriches escapes on his watch, Karim is horrified. He spends long hours out in the desert, marching along the horizon with a fake neck and round body atop his own shoulders, hopelessly trying to entice the stubborn bird back.
When this effort inevitably fails, Karim loses his job. He is, of course, desperate for cash, not only to feed his three children and patient wife Narges (Maryam Akbari), but also to replace his daughter Haniyeh's (Shabnam Akhlaghi) hearing aid. She's dropped her old one into the village water supply while accompanying her little brother Hussein (Hamed Aghazi) on a boyish fishing expedition, and now, with her exams looming, Karim worries that she won't be able to keep up her schoolwork. Though Haniyeh tries to reassure him, reading his lips and pretending to hear, the father feels both responsible and resentful: his children are interfering with his unformed yet grand plan to get ahead. "Kids who don't listen," he complains, "Waste their parents' time."
Despairing but tenacious, Karim rides his motorbike to Tehran, where he hopes to have the broken hearing aid repaired. On learning that he'll need to buy a new one if he wants Haniyeh to be able to hear in time for her exams, he pauses to fret, parked on his bike on the city street. He gazes on the thrumming city: fountains spurting, cars careening, a billboard promoting youth and beauty. And suddenly, he's almost knocked off his bike by a seeming solution: a man in a suit assumes he's a taxi, climbing on the bike and calling out a destination.
Come to find that this guy and many others, all distracted by their cell phones and unthinking when it comes to their fat wallets full of cash, pay handsomely for rides within the city. Suddenly, Karim has a new business, one where he is not dependent on an employer or a bird with a mind of its own. Startled by how much cash is available for so little effort, Karim returns to Tehran day after day, finding other one-offs, toting appliances like DVD players, Japanese blenders, and washing machines, plasmas and "Malaysian vacuum cleaners." The ever-dour Karim even indulges in a bit of comedy, when he has a small refrigerator tied to the back of his bike, gagging as he asks for the ropes across his neck to be lowered to his chest.
Karim's newfound enthusiasm blinds him to potential problems down the road. This even though Narges is quick to fuss, "Don't you want a steady job? God forbid the bike breaks down!" Dismissing her concerns, Karim expands his consumption. He starts bringing home the urban residents' cast-offs, a bent-but-working antennae for the family TV, a blue door, window panes and frames. He accumulates all kinds of junk in his yard, carefully piling the pieces so they won't tip over, improbably but understandably proud of his accomplishment.
The lesson that Karim must learn is hardly surprising. But when he learns it, watching those goldfish thrash and boys weep. If he and the kids don't see it, the camera makes sure you do, following a few fish as they flip their way into the gutter, where they are caught up in waters headed outside the city, to a stream where they might be saved even as they are lost.