Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi has taken a subject usually dealt with as melodrama or horror — a blind man regaining his sight — and created a moving spiritual meditation on freedom, obligation and expectation. The Willow Tree might just as easily have been called Ways of Seeing: The university professor at the center of Majidi's tale experiences a reawakening to the visual world, but it's his perception of the careful life he's meticulously crafted that comes under the harshest scrutiny.
When we first see Youssef (Parvis Parastui), he's a man immersed in a world of words and thoughts of the divine. He teaches the work of the Sufi poet Rumi, and his home office is filled with volumes of scholarship typed in Braille by his devoted wife, Roya (Roya Taymourian). At once, in his life and outside of it, Youssef ruminates about his fate as he plays with his daughter, who's so lively and optimistic at the same age when he lost his sight.
A health scare sends Youssef to a specialized eye clinic in Paris, and he receives a diagnosis he'd long ago thought impossible — with a cornea transplant, he'll again be able to see. Youssef greets the news with a mixture of hope and trepidation, and the night before he's set to get his bandages removed, he's overwhelmed with anxious anticipation and slowly undoes them himself.
Youssef then walks excitedly down a corridor in the hesitant gait of one still afraid he'll trip on unseen objects; in these moments, this quiet, contained man unleashes all his suppressed emotions. The remarkable Parastui is so raw here that watching him is almost embarrassing, but his expression of unabashed rapture and terror is key to the ensuing dissolution.
Greeted by a sea of unfamiliar faces at the Tehran airport, Youssef soon realizes that the more he sees, the more disillusioned he feels. Majidi (The Color of Paradise) is remarkable at portraying how Youssef perceives his surroundings visually, with a poetic profundity that renders these new visions as gifts bestowed by a compassionate deity. Yet Youssef is not fully grateful and his anguish can't easily be explained away.
Willow unfolds with a narrative simplicity that belies its deeply philosophical nature. Suffused with sadness, and aching for hope, Youssef struggles to once again perceive all that he could see when consigned to darkness.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 3, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 4-5. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].