Less about physical disability as a path either to or away from personal enlightenment than a meditation on human knowledge and its ambiguities, Iranian director Majid Majidi’s The Willow Tree utilizes physical metaphors to explore weighty human spiritual and existential issues. Though veering far too close for comfort at times to emotional manipulation of the audience, the film is predominantly crafted with engaging visual lyricism and intense, brooding introspection.
Youssef (Parvis Parastui) is a forty five year old blind university professor of literature devoted to his intellectual craft, as he studies and writes with vigorous intensity in braille. Though lonely and understandably withdrawn in his daily life, Youssef is surrounded by the love and warmth of a doting wife and bubbly young daughter.
Blinded since the age of eight by a fireworks accident, Youssef seems resigned and at peace with his fate. But when a friend arranges for him to fly to Paris to receive a cornea transplant which miraculously restores his sight, the professor’s marginalzed but safe world slowly unravels following initial euphoria over his regained sight. Shocked to behold in the mirror, not the child whose gaze he left there decades ago but an aging man in his middle years, Youssef undergoes a traumatic midlife crisis which ironically, thrusts him into the frank visual reality of his world that blindness protected him from.
Troublesome moral questions arise and ensue, such as thoughts of infidelity and an irrepressible attraction to younger women which he was denied in his youth through blindness. Also, his moral obligations to society that sight now suddenly mandates, as when he witnesses a pickpocketing of another passenger on a crowded subway train, and is too cowardly to actively protest and intercede.
The Willow Tree is a vividly conceived sensual, emotional and philosophical journey touching on our relation to human existence and its joys and wonders, but tempered by the testing of one’s moral responsibility and intimate, undeniable connection to the world around us. Perhaps Majidi also intended wry commentary and observation of the dubious influences of Western culture on the Iranian people, where technological and material advances impart an outside knowledge that is not necessarily likewise wisdom, enlightenment or virtue.
New Yorker Video
2 1/2 stars
DVD Features: Full Frame; Keep Case; In Farsi, with English subtitles.