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Originally published Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

From blind to sighted: Miracle or mistake?

Majid Majidi's extraordinary film "The Willow Tree," one man's recovery from blindness becomes a metaphorical odyssey with soul-shaking repercussions.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"The Willow Tree," with Parvis Parastui, Roya Taymourian, Mohammad Amir Naji. Written and directed by Majid Majidi. 96 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. In Farsi with English subtitles. Varsity.

As a wheelchair user for nearly 29 years, I've often wondered what psychological aftershocks might occur if my disability were to suddenly go away. Would that wish fulfillment come at a price? Would being able-bodied again be a euphoric experience, or would I endure some kind of anticlimactic, post-disability letdown?

Typically this kind of miracle-cure scenario is left to maudlin TV movies, but in Iranian writer/director Majid Majidi's extraordinary film "The Willow Tree," one man's recovery from blindness becomes a metaphorical odyssey with soul-shaking repercussions. For 45-year-old Youssef (Parvis Parastui), the restoration of sight is an epiphany followed by devastating existential trauma. As a man of God, he's literally and spiritually brought to his knees.

Now a devoted husband, father and professor of literature who specializes in teaching the poetry of Rumi, Youssef has been blind since childhood. His inner worlds (both domestic and professional) are places of sublime serenity and comfort, where reading and writing in Braille is peaceful compensation for his anger at God, which he carries like a secret burden. But when he journeys to Paris for a corneal transplant that restores his sight, he's totally unprepared for the vast difference between reality and the paradise he'd created in his mind's eye. For Youssef, answered prayers become an unexpected torment.

Upon seeing his wife for the first time, he is more attracted to his uncle's sister-in-law. During a subway ride, he spots a pickpocket in action and remains stuck in a state of silent, unsettling complicity. The gift of sight is an assault on the world of his imagination, which until now had provided a protective shell from reality. And his challenges have only just begun.

To convey this troubled man's rush of conflicting emotions, Majidi fills "The Willow Tree" (the title is one of many metaphorical references) with symbolic portent and arresting images that feel perfectly matched to the intensity of Youssef's experience. As Youssef begins to recognize the folly of his "blind paradise" and the life he could have lived but didn't, his spiritual crisis escalates to the point where only a return to faith can save him.

This is powerful stuff, although Majidi (whose previous films include the Oscar-nominated "Children of Heaven") occasionally resorts to unnecessary sentiment, and Parastui's overwrought performance is straight from the Rod Steiger school of labored intensity, even when you allow for the theatricality of Majidi's spiritual parable. But in suggesting that answered prayers don't always bring comfort, "The Willow Tree" offers a wise alternative to idealized notions of miraculous recovery.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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