Sorrowful but rigorously spare, documaker Atiq Rahimi’s feature debut tracks a family patriarch on an arduous journey in war-torn Afghanistan, accompanied by his young grandson, to bear bad news to the child’s father at a remote mine. A Franco-Afghan co-prod, co-written by ace Iranian scribe Kambozia Partovi (“The Circle”) and co-produced by “Osama”-director Siddiq Barmak, pic effortlessly marries the emotional restraint and contemplative rhythm of arthouse Iranian and Middle Eastern cinema with more Western inflections detectable in the use of widescreen, flashbacks and dream sequences. Novelty of post-war Afghani cinema will gain “Earth and Ashes” ground on the festival circuit.
In a hilly, khaki-colored landscape, so barren that the odd tree comes as a shock, elderly Dastaguir (Abdul Ghani) and his 5-year-old grandson Yassin (Jawan Mard Homayoun) hitchhike and walk, but mostly walk, as they make their way to the coal mine where Dastaguir’s son Murad works. Gradually, it emerges that Dastaguir must tell Murad that the rest of their family, including Murad’s wife, mother, nephew and sister back home in Abqol were all killed in a recent bomb attack. What’s more, Yassin has gone deaf after the bombing, and doesn’t understand his own condition, thinking everyone else has lost their voices. Dastaguir fears all this appalling news will literally kill his son.
A truck drops them in tiny outpost of civilization, consisting of a sentry house manned by the tetchy Fateh (Kader Arefi), a shack selling food and cigarettes run by kindly shopkeeper Mirza Qadir (Walli Tallosh), a bridge over a dry river connecting the two buildings, and an abandoned tank where a veiled woman and her daughter come each day to wait — for whom or what no one knows. Dastaguir and Yassin must catch a truck from here to the mine.
Yassin’s misbehavior, aggravated by his deafness, causes the twosome to miss the truck on their first day. An attempt to walk to the mine is abandoned after an errant sheep inadvertently demonstrates that landmines make the journey impossibly dangerous. They walk back to a neighboring village where they meet Amro (Mirza Hussein), the father of Dastaguir’s dead daughter-in-law Zaynab (Guilda Chahverdi). In a rehearsal of the painful meeting he expects to have with Murad, Dastaguir tells Amro of how Zaynab, caught in the public steam bath when the bombs fell, ran through the streets naked into her burning house in shame just before it blew up. Images of Zaynab continue to haunt Dastaguir’s dreams throughout film, and although her undressed form has no particular erotic charge here such imagery will severely limit pic’s distribution potential in Muslim territories.
For two days, Dastaguir and Yassin return to the meeting point for the truck, but keep missing the connection. In a slightly heavy-handed bout of symbolism, Yassin refuses to leave an abandoned tank at one point, accusing it of having “stolen everyone’s voices.” When Dastaguir finally does make it to the mine, the outcome is not at all what he, or the audience, expected.
Although the landscape with its vast, inhospitable horizons is as much a character here as the people who populate it, helmer Rahimi uses dialogue more than visuals to drive the story forward. He also displays a fondness for the vaguely surrealist touches, including having characters off camera speaking to Dastaguir, who could be either ghosts or figments of his distressed imagination. The slightly non-linear approach to structure suggests story’s origin as a novel, written by helmer himself. But Rahimi’s almost derivative helming is likely to appeal in particular to devotees of the ascetic style of Abbas Kiarostami and the House of Makhmalbaf, and test the patience of non-subscribers.
Use of non-professional thesps is typical of this tradition. Rahimi coaxes heartfelt if unspectacular perfs from his cast, with Ghani giving a stolid but sincere turn as the too-long-suffering Dastaguir, and Homayoun just as annoying as he ought to be as the hyperactive Yassin. Tallosh, as the courtly mannered shopkeeper, shines in particular, maximizing his impact with a few well-delivered monologues.
Tech credits are upper crust, with Eric Guichard’s seared lensing of the desert (a region near Pol-e-Khomri, a city north of Kabul according to press notes) especially notable. Khaled Arman and Francesco Russo’s score is suitably plangent and not overintrusive. Editor Ursula Lesiak and Rahimi contrive to use the constant clouds of dust raised by the action to act as naturally motivated fades to white, but pic drags badly in the home stretch and could benefit from a 10-minute trim.