A "research work" by Abbas Kiarostami, founded on observation and double-edged elaborations on Antoine Doniel's interview in The 400 Blows. Kiarostami plays headmaster, a detachment closer to Warhol than to Truffaut: The camera is positioned low to survey children, who grin and wave at it on the way to school; the bell tolls and the students line up for zesty exercises ("Islam is victorious, down with the East and West..." capped with a diss at "Saddam's followers"), then a procession of skirmishes between the kids and the filming eye, a frontal champ contre champ. The boys profess to prefer dictation over television, one solemnly turns for a profile and a song and another excitedly recalls the action passage in the last movie he saw, another giggles while describing his father's chubbiness (the same chubbiness that robs the father of a waistband to beat the son with). Details from Where Is the Friend's Home? emerge along the way, and from the educational system housing them -- a parent drops by to discuss less oppressive modes of education and concern for future generations, the reverse-shot reveals the auteur's sly mock-scowl. The movie's opposing poles are homework and cartoons, punishment and encouragement, though Kiarostami is less interested in dichotomous absolutes than in the complex emotional zones between them, in the many fibs and confessions ("To make children capable of honesty is the beginning of education," John Ruskin once said) that the camera precipitates, records, and transforms. The brilliance of the structure lies in a certain lambent openness that inevitably funnels down to a transcendental sequence-summary, the boy who cries uncontrollably before the intimidating authority of Kiarostami's lenses -- The Children Are Watching Us is evoked and the entire documentary aesthetic is given a fresh inquiry when the religion-class poem is rattled off ("O Lord / Fill our hearts with happiness and joy") and the boy is left frozen, perched, troublingly and profoundly, between robotic memorization and surreptitious epiphany.
--- Fernando F. Croce