Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar," a near-great Iranian film of social protest that is set in Afghanistan in the waning days of the 20th century, begins and ends with shots of a woman behind a burka, a bulky all-enveloping hood that both masks her from the world and allows her to see that world only in pieces. The woman is Nafas, a Canadian journalist born in Afghanistan who fled her homeland years ago for the West and has now returned to search for her sister. Nafas (played by Nelofer Pazira) has donned the burka to disguise herself as she works her way from the Iran-Afghan border toward her sister's home city of Kandahar, then still a stronghold of the Taliban.
But the burka is more than garment. It is an obvious symbol of the oppression Nafas left behind years ago and which she now braves to try to save her sister. Sunk into despair after a land-mine accident that left her legless, the sister has written that she intends to kill herself during the last solar eclipse of the century, which is only three days away from the time Nafas crosses the border. And though three days might seem plenty even for a lone traveler to reach a populous modern city in the age of air travel and buses, we soon see that Nafas is really traveling backward in time - toward a primitive, dangerous era in a country that has literally screened itself off from the modern world.
As Nafas travels through the desolate sandy wastes - first by cart with an Afghan family who are attacked by bandits, then with a shifty young boy named Khak (Sadou Teymouri) who strips jewelry from the corpses they find, then with a seemingly kind doctor, Hassan Tantai (Tabib Sahid), who takes her in another horse-cart, speaks to her in English and turns out to be an American ex-black Muslim in self-exile - she plunges deeper and deeper into the primitive society.
It is all unforgettably strange and sad - a place of chanting, warlike boys reading holy texts, of hooded invisible women and surreal scenes like the rain of prosthetic limbs and artificial legs (echoing the sister's plight) that pours down from medical aid planes that pass overhead. The image of the eclipse - of "the sun behind the moon" (which was "Kandahar's" original title) - recalls the image of the woman behind the burka, of the human face beneath the hood. In the world of Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar," which takes place well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, life itself is a prison and the sun itself is masked.
In this movie, one of Iran's greatest filmmakers, Makhmalbaf ("Gabbeh," "Salaam Cinema," The Silence") delivers a stinging indictment of neighboring Afghanistan's social chaos and the Taliban regime's persecution of its people - and especially its women. And as you watch "Kandahar," you can feel the emotions behind it: the outrage and pity, the melancholy and compassion.
"Kandahar" is a devastating film but also a lyrical one. It is a feminist adventure story that is also a tale of mounting suspense and horror, as well as a poetic evocation of a barren, dangerous land and a people who live on the edge of disaster or madness. But it is also a remarkable cinematic experiment, a blend of documentary and fiction film that carries the modern Iranian fascination with the Italian postwar neo-realist style to unusual and ironic extremes.
Much of the film was improvised on location. Most of the actors are amateurs. Lead actress Pazira is actually, like her character, a journalist and Afghan native who fled to Canada and wanted to return to aid another woman. (It was her story that inspired Makhmalbaf's script; she initially asked him to shoot a documentary with her.) Hassan Tantai, who plays charity doctor Tabib Sahid, an African-American and former black Muslim is himself an American Muslim expatriate who has been accused of being a notorious fugitive. All this gives "Kandahar" a unique feeling of life, a spontaneity that spills out of every scene. But it is Makhmalbaf himself, with Abbas Kiarostami one of the two pre-eminent Iranian directors, who gives the film its passion and poetry. He brings the story a picaresque, fairy-tale feel, as he has in "Tales of Kish." But he also keeps stripping away the veils, showing the truth of the country.
As a former radical fundamentalist, he knows the appeal of religious extremism, and he examines, without mercy or softening, its pitfalls and tragedies. The film is a call for redress of injustice that the world might not have heard without the notoriety of the World Trade Center attack. But, like all excellent works of art, "Kandahar" does not rise or fall on its political message. It makes us see what we otherwise couldn't, feel both the cruelty and cowardice of social injustice and terror. Watching this film wakes you up; it is a window on an Iran and an Afghanistan we should have taken account of long ago - seen though a master's eye, felt through a poet's touch.
3 1/2 stars
"Kandahar" Directed, written and edited by Mohsen Makhmalbaf; photographed by Ebraham Ghafouri; music by Mohamad Reza Darvishi; produced by Makhmalbaf Film House (Iran), Bac Films (France). An Avatar Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:25. No MPAA rating (family, with caution for mature themes of social unrest).
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times