The Song of Sparrows, a serio-charming slice of Iranian neo-realism, shrouds grave matters like despondence and destitution in the trappings of a culture-contrast comedy. Concealing social criticism to curtail the censors is by now standard operating procedure in Iran. And so, for a while, the film plays its desperation for laughs. Karim (the hard-scrabble-faced Reza Najie) works at an ostrich farm, an inherently hilarious location thanks to the creatures’ rubber golf club neck-and-head combos. Director Majid Majidi exploits the setting for a few comic set pieces: a gaggle of workers scrambling after a runaway ostrich; Karim hunting that escapee in the desert, bent over, clad in a cape of ostrich feathers, brandishing an ersatz ostrich neck-head made of wood. But beneath the ostensibly laughable bubbles something more serious: Karim is poor, living in an impoverished (yet quasi-Edenic) village, and he has a wife and three children to support, one of whom is almost as deaf as a post and in need of a new hearing aid. A lost ostrich translates into a lost job, which he can’t afford. Soon, the shots of ostriches shed their risibility and assume a taunting and contemptible air.
Unemployed and sputtering through nearby Tehran, unsure of how he’ll pay for a new hearing aid, Karim becomes an accidental taxi driver when a cellphone jerk hops on the back of his motorbike. The open-spaced country of the opening stands in stark contrast to the second act’s urban density, astounding in its affluence and abundance: the rooftop antenna that the metropolitans consider trash is a marked improvement over the ramshackle receiver Karim has back at his hut. And he makes twice the money as he could earn by toiling away in the rural area. But Majidi sets up the distinction between country and city as the difference between morality and debauchery, collectivism and self-interested capitalism. Above all, he sets his critical eye on technology, on the contrast between necessary gadgets, like his daughter’s hearing aid, and spiritually oppressive luxuries. Everyone in the city is on a cellphone and, not coincidentally, everyone in the city is a jerk — including, eventually, Karim.
His new money and new clothes slowly transform him: he becomes less charitable, starts hitting his kids with a belt, and threatens his wife with the same. He looks a lot like Tokyo Sonata’s patriarch, except that it’s money — or, rather, his newfound materialism — that’s made him cruel, not the lack of it. (Majidi’s occasional aerial shots suggest theological observation — and judgment.) The ostriches become a symbol of what he’s lost. Eventually the bottom falls out; literally, his wealth comes crashing down, as does he, and a cryptic and symbol-laden third act concerns his long recovery, not just from physical injuries but spiritual, as well. The Song of Sparrows concludes with optimism amid despair; it’s a celebration not of poverty, like Slumdog Millionaire, but of humility, generosity and kindness — virtues that, Majidi argues, are absent from the city centers, steeped as they are in the alienating modernity of construction sites and cellphones.