‘Willow Tree’ explores the misery in a miracle
The Aspen Times
In the fascinating French film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (which has yet to open in Aspen), Jean-Dominique, an editor for a fashion magazine, loses almost all his physical capacities. He is left to see if he can conjure a satisfactory existence out of his imagination, his relationships with family and friends, and the one part of his body ” his left eye ” that isn’t paralyzed. Jean-Dominique’s struggle is not only a physical one but a spiritual one, and the film earned a pair of Golden Globe Awards last week ” for best director, Julian Schnabel, and for best foreign film ” for the depth of its exploration.
“The Willow Tree,” by Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, is essentially the mirror image of the story told in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” This is about a man recovering his capacities, and the consequences. In “The Willow Tree,” a creative, well-to-do professor of poetry, Yusef, has been blind since the age of 8, from a misadventure with fireworks. A tumor has developed on his eye, and he travels to France to have it examined. Doctors and friends fear the worst, but the growth turn out to be benign, and it is discovered the retinas remain sensitive to light, meaning there is a chance that his vision can be restored. Corneas are transplanted, and Yusef leaves France a changed man.
Whether this change is for the better is unclear. Yusef returns to Iran bewildered, unable to process a realm that he left decades earlier. The extended segment in which he re-enters the world of sight is virtuosic filmmaking by Majidi, whose earlier films ” “The Children of Heaven,” “The Color of Paradise” ” have earned awards in Iran and beyond. Majidi takes the excuse of Yusef’s newfound vision to delve into cinematographic elements of focus, reflection, texture and composition. Parvis Parastui, playing Yusef, is no less impressive. Yusef says little, but Parastui’s portrayal emphasizes the profound heaviness that Yusef shuffles around with in his new life.
We wait for Yusef, a spiritual and intelligent man, to adjust and ultimately celebrate the blessing of vision. The willow tree of the title, Yusef has explained, refers to the sapling he was given as a child at the school for the blind. He was meant to grow along with the tree; perhaps now he needs to return to a childlike state, to learn again about this newborn world. But we wait and wait, and the film takes on the air of a mystery: Why does such misery exist inside a body that has been physically restored?
Several answers are hinted at: Yusef may not find his wife attractive, or being a blind man relieves certain pressures, and Yusef has grown accustomed to living with lower expectations.
There is no simple answer; the film is not in search of a “Rosebud” revelation. Instead, there is a complex and resonant background to Yusef’s suffering. Having suppressed his anxieties so thoroughly as an amiable blind man, Yusef, now in fuller contact with the world, releases his emotions.
It’s a twist on the tale of the lifelong jailbird who can’t survive on the outside. But Yusef’s explosion is mixed with guilt, spirituality and a reconciliation with his past, making for a rich exploration of grief and regret.
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