Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar," a powerful depiction of oppression and hardship under Taliban rule, would have been an important picture even if the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks never occurred. It is but the latest prize-laden, critically acclaimed work of one of Iran's major directors, who combines here the intense social consciousness of his earlier work with the poetic sensibility of his more recent films.
In this post-Sept. 11 world, "Kandahar," its very title only newly familiar, understandably drew far wider audiences in New York than usual for an Iranian film. It was helped also by the fact that it is largely and credibly in English.
Then, just before Christmas, the film received unusual publicity--or notoriety, anyway--when stories broke detailing the strong possibility that one of the film's leading players, Hassan Tantai, an African American, may be a former Howard University student who fled to Iran in 1980 after fatally shooting a leading Iranian dissident in Bethesda, Md.
With the utmost simplicity, Makhmalbaf tells the story of a beautiful Afghan-born journalist, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), who fled to Canada with her family nine years earlier at the advent of Taliban rule, leaving a sister behind. The year is 1999, and Nafas has received word that her sister is so despondent over having been maimed by a land mine, added to her plight as a woman under Taliban rule, that she declares she will commit suicide during an approaching solar eclipse, an apt metaphor for the darkness enveloping Afghanistan.
Nafas makes her way to Iran's border with Afghanistan and, donning a burka, is determined to enter her native country and make her way to Kandahar to try to stop her sister from killing herself.
She has but two days to make a difficult, dangerous journey through desert terrain. Ever the journalist, she tape-records her impressions at every turn.
At the outset she manages to persuade an Afghan returning to his homeland with his large family to pass her off as one of his four wives. He agrees to the proposal, but not without a burst of the hearty humor that from time to time relieves the bleakness and misery the film depicts. A boy named Khak (Sadou Teymouri), expelled from a school that intersperses chants on the operation of a semiautomatic weapon with traditional Islamic prayers, escorts her on foot for some distance.
Then Hassan Tantai's Tabib Sahid, a self-proclaimed physician to the needy, agrees to take her in his horse-drawn cart for most of the remainder of the journey but chooses not to explain why he can't take her all the way into the city.
Nafas' journey allows Makhmalbaf to observe the suffering and desperate poverty visited upon the Afghan people under Taliban rule. In the film's most stirring sequence, Afghan men beg for prosthetic legs and arms handed out at a Red Cross encampment to those who have been maimed by land mines; the prosthetics are at so great a premium that the waiting list is a year. The vast open spaces also allow Makhmalbaf and his outstanding cinematographer, Ebraham Ghafouri, to create a steady flow of stunning images, accompanied by Mohamad Reza Darvishi's intoxicating yet spare score.
"Kandahar" is a film of passion and immediacy, yet one that's marked by the rigorous detachment typical of the director. As before, Makhmalbaf is skilled at eliciting natural, unself-conscious portrayals from nonprofessional actors. Pazira actually is an Afghan-born Canadian journalist. This remarkably revealing and timely film, in which the depiction of pain and sorrow is suffused with a sense of beauty and a graceful, flowing style, more than lives up to glowing advance notices.
Unrated. Times guidelines: intense subject matter; harsh, unsettling images.
Hassan Tantai...Tabib Sahid
An Avatar Films release of Makhmalbaf Film House (Iran) and Bac Films (France) co-production. Writer-director-editor Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Cinematographer Ebraham Ghafouri. Music Mohamad Reza Darvishi. In English, and Pashtu and Farsi with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Playing at Landmark's Cecchi Gore Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330; and Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.