Beed-e Majnoon (or The Willow Tree) poses a very challenging question: what would happen if a blind man was to gain sight? It's almost impossible to imagine, which is what makes this film so compelling. Intriguingly, when the protagonist Yusef, a blind Iranian university professor, does regain his vision, the sights of his native Tehran are as new to him as they are to the viewer.
Written and brought to the screen by celebrated director Majid Majidi, The Willow Tree follows Yusef, a middle-aged man who lost his sight as a young boy. His memories are fossilized, his concept of his adult world idealized, his residence imagined as a paradise. When he is given his vision back, following a brush with death, the experience is miraculous – at least for a while.
Initially he marvels at every image, his mother's face, his daughter's smile, jeweled trinkets at his mother's house. It's intriguing to look at Tehran through his newly-opened eyes, as he runs down an alleyway and memories come flooding back.
It's a city that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. Many major cities around the world follow a Western template of highrises, motorways, commuter trains, cars, buses and street signs. All pretty uniform. But it's the details, the tucked-away corners, that add color to this setting. The wrought-iron archways. The turquoise tiled ponds in open courtyards. The community gatherings, with heaped plates of saffron rice. The ubiquitous headscarves. The shop windows, with mannequins also draped in headscarves.
Like every city, Tehran has beauty and ugliness in equal part, and as such serves as the perfect backdrop to Yusef's inner torment. As life with sight becomes 'normal', he descends into a personal nightmare. Had his world been picture perfect (the bucolic setting of Rang-e Khoda, for example), perhaps he would have found it less challenging.
As Majidi points out, we have the power to paint beauty over ugliness, to add color to the banal. 'For Yusef, the blind man of my film, serenity comes from his little balcony, the sound of nature and the angelic voices and touches of his family. The beauty is in his mind, and ugliness does not exist. He is like Adam in the garden of Paradise, both protected and powerful. I wanted to explore what would happen to his serenity and his sense of control if he was taken out of Paradise.'
If Yusef had opened his eyes and found only the beauty he had imagined, the movie would have followed a different path. Instead, he starts to want things he doesn't have. 'When Yusef is exposed to the visual world,' explains Majidi, 'the beauty he encounters is compelling and frustratingly elusive. Ugliness and strangeness is everywhere. The aggressive presence of the world gradually silences the dialog he had with God and himself. I realized that when a man becomes deaf to his inner dialog and ignores the positive messages the world sends him, the only actions he could do would be selfish, violent and destructive. When fate tests us, our life, if not built on firm foundations, often collapses.'
The Willow Tree is not a gentle tale. It's raw, unforgiving, not always beautiful, but it's a chance to get to know Tehran in a less idealized way, more real life than travelogue. A tale of what it is like to see the world without any obstruction. – Roshan McArthur