The Song of Sparrows is an easy, charming crowd-pleaser, produced by Iran's resident master of crowd-pleasers, Majid Majidi (whose Children of Heaven was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, making it perhaps unsurprising that Song of Sparrows was just announced as Iran's submission for that category this year). None of which should be taken to mean that it's mawkish or needlessly cute. Okay, it's kind of cute, but never mawkish.

Playing a bit like an alternative universe variant on Bicycle Thieves, Majidi's film focuses on family man Karim (Reza Naji), who works at an ostrich farm somewhere outside of Tehran. When we meet him, he's been hit with a tiny bit of a crisis: somehow, he has to raise $400 immediately to replace his elder daughter's broken hearing aid before her examinations. That would be plenty difficult for someone in his position, living essentially hand-to-mouth, but it gets even harder after he's fired from his job, presumably because of his role in the escape of one of the ostriches.

During a trip to Tehran to do whatever he can to wheedle a deal from the local hearing aid seller, something peculiar happens to Karim: as he idles on his motorbike at a stop sign, someone hops on the back and barks out a destination. Not knowing what else to do, Karim drives the man there, and for his troubles receives a sum of money representing a significant fraction of his old daily salary. From this moment on, Karim becomes a taxi driver and porter, carrying people and parcels across the city for sums of money that would have been unthinkable back in the days of his work on the ostrich farm. And something else happens, too: perhaps because of the money, perhaps because of the unthinkingly venal people who ride with him, and perhaps because he's just not equipped to deal with the seductive powers of the big city, Karim starts to learn greed, and as he makes a habit out of ending the day by bringing home some piece of useful junk, he begins to amass a fortune in second-hand goods, hoarding them even as they become less useful to him and much more useful to his desperate neighbors. While this is happening, two subplots keep him tethered to his former life: first, he keeps hearing about a phantom ostrich that lays its eggs all over the region, clearly the same bird that started the whole mess; second, his son continually nags about his own capitalist enterprise, starting a fish farm in the local water reservoir, though this plan is unambiguously that of a wide-eyed child with a penchant for fairy tales.

Take this at face value, and it's frankly insulting: just a reductive story about a country bumpkin who can't process the big city morality of Tehran. But nothing about The Song of Sparrows asks to be taken at face value; this isn't a realist story so much as it is a pastoral romance. I'd hesitate to call Karim a metaphorical symbol, but he's clearly more than just a disgraced ostrich farmer. The closest comparison I can think of offhand is to Murnau's Sunrise, in which the man and woman at the center of the story represent earthy purity, and I hope that name-dropping that infinitely superior film doesn't make it seem like The Song of Sparrows is a gargantuan masterpiece, or something like that. It's just a similarly fabulous story about simplicity versus complexity, and how it is generally better to be generous than grasping.

Though the cast is uniformly fine (and I'd even tell you their names if the credits weren't in Arabic), the obvious stand-out is Naji, who won Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival for his troubles. Karim is not a character who admits much possibility for subtlety, but Naji never succumbs to the temptation of playing to the rafters. In his performance, Karim is a quiet man with thoughtful eyes, far more clever than he lets on, and prone to speaking only when he has something to say. In fairness, much of Naji's performance is based on the screenplay and Majidi's direction: this is a surprisingly dialogue-light film, with many scenes playing out solely as we watch Karim isolated with his thoughts. The director stages most of the scenes in wide shots with minimal cutting, much as though we were watching all these things taking place on a stage. Though he's not above using some heavy-handed images when it suits him (the culmination of the plot to seed the reservoir with fish is a good example - there's even slow-motion involved, I'm sad to say), for the most part Majidi sticks to a very hands-off aesthetic, letting the film unfold with exquisite slowness.

Nothing about The Song of Sparrows marks it out as an especially great film, but it's doubtlessly moving and entertaining in a modest way. Simple pleasures are still pleasures, after all, and with Hollywood just revving up its Oscarbait engines, it's nice to have a reminder that America doesn't have a monopoly on sweetly uplifting movies about life lessons; hell, that we're not even necessarily the best at it.