A young woman's promising future is threatened when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, and the man she hoped to marry turns out to be a cad, in didactic drama "Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)."

A young woman’s promising future is threatened when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, and the man she hoped to marry turns out to be a cad, in didactic drama “Wajma (An Afghan Love Story).” Shot with the sort of documentary realism that characterized multihyphenate helmer Barmak Akram’s earlier “Kabuli Kid,” but lacking that film’s seriocomic p.o.v., “Wajma” is a sober, downbeat indictment of a patriarchal society’s traditional right to uphold family honor. Fests, cinematheques, universities and broadcasters seem the best bet offshore for this Sundance screenplay prizewinner.

Although an opening title card indicates the film was inspired by real events, the engrossing setup of the first half (how young people live and love in modern Afghanistan) and the melodramatic finale (family honor at all costs) ultimately feel forced together at the expense of the nuanced characters we first meet. With the second half functioning as more of a teaching tool than a satisfying drama, the pic overall leaves the sour taste of bait-and-switch.

Twenty-year-old Wajma (Wajma Bahar) is part of a large, lower-middle-class family. She lives in an old-fashioned walled compound with her mother (Breshna Bahar), father (Hadji Gul, the star of “Kabul Kid”), brother and grandmother, although dad is frequently absent since he works as a deminer in the south of the country. Wajma has just been accepted into law school — an accomplishment in a country where, for many women, just getting an education is still an act of defiance. Even though this obviously marks a first for her family, they barely remark on it.

Wajma is having a surreptitious relationship with 25-year-old Mustafa (Mustafa Habibi), a gregarious waiter who fled to Iran with his family during the war years. Now he lives with his mother in the family’s modern apartment and fancies himself an attractive man-about-town.

The film’s most interesting moments follow the couple’s clandestine courtship, with both conscious of the societal rules they are breaking, yet swept along by passion and rare moments of privacy. Their dialogue not only rings true, but reveals much about their backgrounds and aspirations, especially as Wajma admires Mustafa’s living situation and expresses her envy of his brother, who is a resident of the U.S.

Much less credible, however, particularly in the context of their relationship as depicted earlier, is Mustafa’s instant rejection of Wajma when he learns she is pregnant. His suspicion that she might have slept with other men seems to be merely a pretext for the scene in which Mustafa’s handsome employer explains that not all virgins bleed the first time they have intercourse.

More obvious didacticism comes in the scene in which Wajma’s father visits the local prosecutor (after he has severely beaten and imprisoned his daughter) to find out what his options are vis-a-vis Mustafa. The elderly lawyer, who decries “our outdated society,” explains that he would only have the right to kill the young couple if he had caught them in the act of fornication.

Thesping is heartfelt in a naturalistic manner, in spite of the characters’ contrary behavior. The finely observed production package highlights the many contradictions of modern life in Kabul.

Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)

Afghanistan-France

Production

Directed, written by Barmak Akram. A Kabuli Film, Sarl Ariroad production. (International sales: Doc & Film Intl., Paris.) Produced by Barmak Akram.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Akram; editors, Akram, Herve de Luze, Isabelle Ingold; music, Akram, Mathieu Chedid, Susheela Raman; costume designer, Zoleyka Sherzad; sound, Pascal Villard, Jean-Paul Hurier, Raphael Devillers. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 23, 2013. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Wajma Bahar, Mustafa Habibi, Hadji Gul, Breshna Bahar. (Persian dialogue)

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