This is the third of a four-part series on some of the best foreign-language films—at least according to two of our critics, foreign-film buffs Agnieszka Tennant and Stefan Ulstein. This installment examines the best films from the Middle East. Part 1 looked at the best European films, and part 2 examined the best films from Asia; part 4, coming next week, looks at the "best of the rest" of the world.

If we were to rely solely on news headlines to give us an idea of people in the Middle East, it would be easy to lose sight of a basic part of every person in that troubled part of the world: a soul.

If you've seen too many news stories showing radical Iranians chanting "Death to America!" on TV, Palestinians blowing up Israeli buses, or Israelis fencing off parts of the territory occupied by the Palestinians, it may be difficult, at first, to reconcile these pictures with the disarming beauty of nature and complexity of people showcased in Middle Eastern movies.

On a day when the stories of violence or anti-Americanism seem too discouraging and thoughts of hate cross your mind, rent one of the following films. It will remind you that the people of the Middle East (which we define as extending roughly from Arab Africa through Turkey and Iran) long for meaning, love, peace, laughter, and God as much as we do.

Children of Heaven

(Iran, 1997)

Directed by Majid Majidi

It's hard for modern North Americans to imagine a movie that revolves around a pair of lost shoes, but our parents and grandparents who survived the Great Depression will understand it completely.

The story centers around a family of ethnic Turks who are relegated to menial labor in Iran. When a boy in the family loses his sister's shoes, he faces a beating if his father finds out—so the boy and his sister share a pair. When a running contest is announced, the boy is thrilled to find out that the third place prize is a pair of sneakers—which he wants to win for his sister.

This is one of the sweetest films in memory, but the children are not idealized. Their story revolves around what George Orwell called "the almost lunatic misunderstandings" of a child's daily life.

Content: Suitable for all ages.

Color of Paradise

(Iran, 1999)

Directed by Majid Majidi

Color of Paradise, much like Majid Majidi's other famous movie Children of Heaven (see above), is an endearing look at Iranian life. From the first scenes, you can't help but love the 8-year-old blind boy Mohammad, whose father, for most of the movie, is too proud to show his son the affection he craves. The boy has a wise and loving grandmother, whose wrinkled face alone is a study in hard work and goodness, and two sisters who adore him. But his father takes this happiness away from him by displacing the boy away from his family.

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When Mohammad finally breaks down and weeps, confessing his fear that no one loves him and that God must have forgotten him, one marvels at the non-professional actor's authentic delivery. In the end, the boy, always desperately listening for God, proves to be more perceptive spiritually than many people who have eyes but cannot really see. You find yourself thinking together with Jesus that "the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." The mysterious ending leaves you wanting to see the film over and over. And you cry every time.

Content: Suitable for all ages.

Control Room

(Qatar/USA, 2004)

Directed by Jehane Noujaim

Those of us who have not actually watched Al Jazeera television probably only know of it through what we've seen through the eyes of American media. Egyptian born, Harvard-educated Jehane Noujaim has given us an uncensored look at the reality of this Arab language network with its headquarters in the Gulf state of Qatar.

While we see examples of clear bias and lack of journalistic research, what stands out is the relative quality and objectivity of the newscasters, many of whom admire the United States. At least one journalist hopes to move there. Compared to Fox News, Al Jazeera comes across as reasonably fair and balanced. It is certainly no lower on the journalistic scale than some of the ranting talk show hosts of the AM airwaves. Those who want to examine perspectives very different from their own will be fascinated and rewarded by Noujaim's documentary and its sharp, incisive style.

Content: Suitable for thinking teenagers and adults with an interest in world events.

Divine Intervention

(Palestine, 2002)

Directed by Elia Suleiman

A bizarre, sad-and-funny movie from the country that doesn't exist—but whose people do—is an adequate expression of the paradoxes its residents have to live with. The cameras take us to the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, as well as to Nazareth, to give us the snapshots of the absurdity of life there. We see, at the beginning of the movie, a Santa Claus losing his presents as he runs from several boys. Soon we learn he has been stabbed. We witness Arab-on-Arab violence, Israeli-on-Arab cruelty, Arab-on-Israeli defiance.

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One poignant scene shows a triumph of beauty as a stunning Palestinian woman ostentatiously ignores the Israeli checkpoint unit and crosses over into Jerusalem. Flabbergasted, the soldiers don't try to stop her. These and other scenes don't always gel together, as if to reflect the chaos and irrationality of living where living is sometimes reduced to merely staying alive.

Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces

(Tunisia, 1990)

Directed by Férid Boughedir

In Middle Eastern cultures, public baths are a ritual of community life. Young boys and girls accompany their mothers. When the boys reach a certain age—or when they display a different kind of "interest" in their fellow bathers—they are sent off to bathe with the men. Young Noura disguises his new awareness of women, not so much out of prurient interest but to remain within the gentle nurture of women. The men's baths are harsh places where masculine virtues and conversation rule. There he will have to fend for himself. When Noura begins eying a local beauty, however, he is banished to the men's baths.

Surprisingly, Halfaouine was a big success in Tunisia. In an interview at the Seattle Film Festival, F?d Boughedir said, "People were so happy to see normal Arab life portrayed on the screen. This was a part of their life that doesn't get told." He noted that audiences included cosmopolitan world travelers and women in veils. Western audiences have little knowledge of everyday Arab life, which is surprisingly polite and hospitable. Halfaouine gives us a glimpse into that world.

Content: Some nudity. May be unsuitable for teens and younger. Parents should watch it on their own to decide.


(Afghanistan, 2003)

Directed by Siddiq Barmak

A mob of bhurka-clad women—widows who've lost their sons to the war—protest the Taliban rule that they may not leave their homes without an accompanying male relative. Desperate and on the verge of starvation, a mother gives her pre-pubescent daughter a boy's haircut and sends her to work in a shop. The terrified girl fears that the Taliban will murder her if they find out.

We see a wide range of Afghan people. Cold-blooded sociopaths of the Committee to Prevent Vice roam the streets looking for short beards and bare ankles. Common people risk their lives to provide such simple courtesies as a bicycle ride home for an unaccompanied woman.

This is a powerful, challenging, and deeply rewarding film. The reality of life under a murderous regime that claims to have God on its side, and the effects of that regime on simple people, is profoundly shown. With some guided discussion, this film may give teenagers a grasp of the issues of the current wars.

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Content: Very strong themes of injustice to women and children. Suitable for older teenagers.

(For more on Osama, see my full review.)

Secret Ballot

(Iran, 2001)

Directed by Babak Payami

A hilarious and absurdist study of democracy manages to both inspire hope and doubt about the way we establish the rule of the people. The setting—a peaceful desert island in the Persian Gulf with just a few residents in makeshift quarters—reminds us that indeed, every vote counts. The comedy also makes a mild feminist statement in that, to everyone's surprise, the election officer who arrives on an island to collect its few inhabitants' votes is a woman.

The gentle, understated humor that has come to mark Iranian cinema delights in a few bizarre scenes—like when a military jeep carrying the election official stops before a stop light in the middle of nowhere, waiting for it to turn green. And you cannot help but resonate with an old man at a solar energy facility who's disappointed by politicians and will only vote for God.

Content: Rated G. Parents might use it to discuss freedom and democracy with their children.

The Tale of the Three Lost Jewels

(Palestine, 1994)

Directed by Michel Khleifi

Yusef is a 12-year-old Palestinian boy with a big-time crush on Aida, a fetching Gypsy girl. To win her love he must find her grandmother's lost jewels, so the love-smitten Yusef sets off on a quest that is both mystical and realistic. Yusef's father is in prison and his brother is wanted by the Israeli army. He goes about his childish pursuit while the Intifada rages around him. He is a young boy for whom the war with the Israelis is an abstract reality. He knows that his people hate the Jews and vice versa, but that reality is not what drives him. He simply tries to ignore it by imagining himself in the sunny Palestinian countryside, free from the rigors of a war that will soon claim his allegiance. He imagines himself with the beautiful and aloof Aida, in a world apart.

While The Tale of the Three Lost Jewels was filmed during the Intifada uprising, it is not an overtly political film. It is about a simple boy and his simple longings. It provides a starting place for a discussion of Palestinian life.

Content: Suitable for all ages

Taste of Cherry

(Iran, 1997)

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Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Famous Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is never in a hurry, especially when pursuing timeless questions such as Why should we keep on living? against the backdrop of lazy scenery. The slow-moving Taste of Cherry follows the a middle-aged man driving around the hilly countryside outside Teheran in search of someone to bury his body after he commits suicide. He offers a hefty sum for the help, but most people he approaches turn down his creepy offer. Eventually, he runs into an old taxidermist who had once tried to commit suicide and has since found the reason to live. He takes the job, but tries to dissuade the despondent man. "Every problem has its solution," the taxidermist tells him. "You want to give up the taste of cherries?" Cherries themselves surely are reason enough to live, but this profound film can provide fodder for discussion of reasons that transcend the world we perceive with our senses.

Content: The film is not rated and, except for brief vulgarities, has no objectionable material.

The Wind Will Carry Us

(Iran, 1999)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

"Observing nature is better than playing backgammon or doing nothing," advises a doctor in The Wind Will Carry Us. And director Abbas Kiarostami—much like in his other masterpiece A Taste of Cherry—provides our eyes with plenty of stunning nature to observe.

The broad landscape of hills, valleys and contorted trees surrounding a Kurdish village allows us much breathing and thinking space. To this quiet place arrives a film crew, waiting for a 100-year-old woman to die in order to document her funeral. In one of his trademark innovations, Kiarostami keeps several characters completely off camera. We never see—but sometimes hear—the old woman and most of the film crew. In the same way, not all the lessons that the "engineer" from the crew learns during his wait are obvious. But somehow, a trip to the place where time seems to have stopped leaves him, and us, delighted.

Content: Nothing in this film is objectionable.

Next week: The best of the rest of the world.