Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the most influential directors in Iran today and patriarch to a family of award-winning filmers, began his career with strongly themed social films like “The Cyclist,” then took a new tack with exotic, color-drenched film poems such as “Gabbeh” and “The Silence.” In “Kandahar,” his new work, he weaves the two threads together in a visually exalting, emotionally horrifying view of Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Reading like a humanitarian cry for help, it is the first major film to describe the Afghans’ current suffering and oppression to audiences in vivid, inescapable terms. It is a film hard to ignore and one likely to have a strong impact on audiences willing to be caught up in its urgency.
The film gives rise to many questions about why refugees return to Afghanistan and what Iran’s attitude is toward them. Frustratingly, no answers are offered here, although some are suggested in Majid Majidi’s recent “Baran,” which would make a fine companion piece for special screenings. But here the intention is not to make a social treatise but a film of maximum emotional impact.
One reason pic seems addressed particularly to Western viewers (which will put off some critics) is the choice of an English-speaking heroine, the courageous journalist Nafas (Niloufar Pazira), who presents the unspeakable tragedy engulfing the country from a knowledgeable outsider’s point of view. Raised in Canada after having escaped from Afghanistan as a child, she now returns to look for her sister, left behind in Kandahar during the family’s flight, after she stepped on a land mine and lost both legs.
In a letter, the sister says she intends to commit suicide during the last eclipse of the 20th century, giving Nafas strong motivation to make the perilous journey into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Early part of the film is reminiscent of adventurous war correspondent tales, as she flies along the Iranian border in a Red Cross helicopter and begins her trek through the desert with a poor family of returning refugees in a three-wheeled van. It’s apparent, however, that much more is at stake than a scoop.
Narrated by Nafas in a lyrical voiceover of regret that one tends to tune out after a while, the film thrusts the viewer, and particularly females, into an uncomfortable first-person experience of imprisonment behind the heavy, head-to-toe veil of the traditional female burka, out of which the world is visible only through an eye net. “The burka is not an ornament,” admonishes a man with three wives, “it’s a question of honor.”
Nafas’ voyage into the heart of darkness — in this case, a brilliantly lighted, bleached-white desert — revolves around two horrors.
The first is the effacement of women, stripped of their civil rights. In an early scene, dozens of little girls are being prepared for a trip across the Iranian border into Afghanistan, where they are told they will no longer be able to go to school. (On the other side of the border, only boys attend a hellish religious/military school, where Taliban mullahs teach a travesty of the Koran.) Until the world notices the girls’ plight and does something, only their imaginations can save them from suicide and madness.
The other nightmare that the pic spotlights is the mutilation and amputation caused by land mines. At a Red Cross station, dozens of men missing legs line up for prosthetic limbs and painkillers. The director’s eye for arresting images fixes on a flock of one-legged men on crutches hobbling frantically across the desert when an airlift starts dropping plastic legs by parachute. Their intense concentration on this deadly serious race to win a leg and the ability to walk, work, and perhaps survive, engrains itself on the memory like the marathon cycling-for-money in “The Cyclist.”
It is Makhmalbaf’s skill at creating this kind of emotionally charged metaphoric image that links the film so closely to poetry. Yet here, metaphor — the burka as a prison, artificial legs as freedom, the eclipse as intellectual darkness, etc. — takes on much greater referential and social weight than in his recent films. The language of images seems to be the only one capable of expressing the surrealistic terror of the land. Ebrahim Ghafouri’s camera describes the aching beauty of the desert, crossed by camels and veiled women in multi-colored burkas, as a Thousand and One Nights paradise-turned-inferno of hunger, disease, and suffering, an Eden from which human beings have been evicted by their own stupidity.
In one shocking if ludicrous scene, women are “examined” by a male doctor through a small hole in a curtain, one body part at a time. The medic (Hassan Tantai) is really an American expat whose search for God has lead him into the wasteland.
His unstereotyped compassion, like Pazira’s lion-hearted bravery, renders them eccentric but believable characters, for all their improbable absurdity.