Majid Majidi’s lyrical, gently comic The Song of Sparrows grounds its low-key humor in the realities of poor, semi-rural Iranian life. That it’s only partially successful has less to do with the film’s tone—the director balances the light and the weighty with considerable ease—than the lack of consistently engaging content to fill out the work’s episodic structure. Tracing the efforts of ostrich farmer Karim (Reza Najie, an actor with a suitably weathered face and a passing resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis) to earn a living for his family, the film begins with a pair of comedic set pieces that swiftly establish the man’s hard-luck existence, so that even as the audience laughs—or at least smiles, as the scenes inspire more nodding admiration than guffaws—at Karim’s efforts to retrieve his daughter’s hearing aid from a well or chase down an errant ostrich, the financial cost of these incidents is never far from the surface.
Things begin to look up for our man when, after having been fired from his farming job, he rides his motorcycle to Tehran and, mistaken for a cabbie, he gives a businessman a lift through the city streets. Seizing on the more lucrative possibilities of taxi driving, he takes up his new calling in earnest, grappling with fare jumpers and rival hacks, while bringing home discarded bric-a-brac he finds on the curbside, even as this newfound financial possibility begins to assert a corrupting influence. The scenes in the city sizzle, Majidi and co-writer Mehran Kashani devising ample semi-comic possibilities, while the director vividly evokes both the clamor of urban life and the discrepancies of wealth that separate the suits that form the cabbie’s clientele from the poor beggars selling their wares by the roadside.
But when Karim discovers his family among the latter group and turns violent hands upon them, it ushers in the movie’s dreary third act in which the filmmakers struggle to come up with enough incident to fill out the remainder of the running time, weakly turning their attention to the matter of their misguided protagonist’s moral redemption. Majidi has a knack for dialing up singular, symbolically resonant imagery (witness an early scene in which Karim disguises himself as an ostrich and wanders across a hilly landscape) and this final stretch offers up several (most notably a score of golden fish flopping around on the pavement), but with the patriarch laid up with an unexpected injury, the film reaches a final impasse beyond which, like its suddenly incapacitated lead character, it has considerable difficulty proceeding any further.