Samira Makhmalbaf’s “At Five in the Afternoon” takes the viewer on a harsh, at times poetic journey into the heart of Afghanistan today, with pic serving as both an impassioned demand for women’s rights and a searing portrayal of a country left in ruins after its liberation from the cruel Taliban regime. This is not a guided tour, however: Viewers must gingerly pick their way through the young femme filmmaker’s sometimes naive and perhaps condescending viewpoint in a very loosely structured film. However, auds can easily identify with the film’s heartfelt feminist critique, equally applicable to Makhmalbaf’s native Iran and many other Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Aided by its stunning visual imagery, the film should gain the 23-year-old director of “The Apple” new fans in upscale foreign markets.
Co-scripted by Samira’s father Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who directed the Afghan shocker “Kandahar” just before the country became a focus of world attention), the film centers on a courageous and intelligent young woman, Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie). She’s living with her aged, very conservative father (Abdolgani Yousefrazi), a cart driver, and her whiny, helpless sister-in-law (Marzieh Amiri) in bombed-out ruins. Noqreh pretends, for her father’s sake, to attend a sexist Koran-reading school, but she’s really attending a newly opened secular girls’ school. The passage from one school, and world view, to another is signaled by Noqreh changing her shoes from slippers to heels.
At school, she openly aspires to something few women would ever dream of even in America: to become president of her country. Instead of treating this as a foolish pipe dream, the teacher encourages spunky girls like Noqreh to run for class president. Noqreh finds a strong campaign supporter in a handsome young poet (Razi Mohebi), who has returned from Pakistan with other refugees to find Kabul in ruins.
Her becoming president of Afghanistan becomes a running joke between them, though how serious Noqreh is about a political career remains ambiguous. Former Pakistan prexy Benazir Bhutto is her model, but film is careful not to whitewash the leader, who supported the Talibans whom Noqreh hates.
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Noqreh engages a young soldier in a surreal conversation about French politics. With characteristically gentle humor, Makhmalbaf ironically points out how political ignorance isn’t limited to illiterate refugees, but extends to Westerners, too. If the heroine had seemed a rather distant, idealized figure to viewers, at this point she springs to life.
Meanwhile, the little family, which includes the sister-in-law’s sick baby, moves from temporary refuge to temporary refuge on the whim of Noqreh’s father. They finally settle into the bombed-out Parliament building. Though mines are mentioned and a bomb explodes at one point, the most pressing dangers facing them are starvation and disease.
Film cycles through some pretty but tangential scenes, such as the poet introducing Noqreh to Garcia Lorca’s poem “At Five in the Afternoon,” before dissolving into a lyrically sad finale offering neither closure nor certainties of what lies ahead.
Played with natural nobility by newcomer Rezaie, Noqreh has the worn face a woman prematurely aged by suffering, but uncowed by it. Yousefrazi, another non-pro thesp, expresses raw humanity toward his frightened daughter-in-law and his dying grandson — and even to the horse pulling his taxi-buggy — so that he commands respect.
This is despite his pious tirades against the “blasphemy” of unveiled women. His silent desperation reaches a high emotional peak in pic’s final scenes, when he decides to take the family across the desert at all costs.
With cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori, Makhmalbaf fills the film with the kind of striking visuals that distinguished her last feature “Blackboards” and the episode she shot for “11’09’01.” Desert landscapes, clay houses carved into mountainsides, arches filled with velvet black shadows, seas of women in blue burqas and even a pair of worn but feminine white shoes powerfully reflect an ancient culture that the film admires and critiques at the same time.