M O V I E   R E V I E W S   B Y   D A V I D   N G

 
Film as humanitarian work is not a new concept for the directors of the Iranian New Wave, and in Kandahar and Baran, two of the latest works from that countryís seemingly inexhaustible source of thoughtful and conscientious movies, the suffering of the Afghan people takes center stage. Here, we see dramatized what weíve been seeing on the news for months: the images of women in burkas, of soldiers whoíve lost legs and arms to land mines, of malnourished children forced into manual labor. They are potent images and their fictional contexts do little to diminish their raw power. If anything, their power grows as they become less real and more cinematically beautiful. Suffering has never looked this good. Kandahar, with its desert vistas and surreal imagery, is certainly the prettier of the two, but Baran, which was shot almost entirely on a muddy construction site under perpetually cloudy skies, is the true romantic, finding unrequited love in one of the most desolate places on Earth.

 
Baran

Baran is set in Iran and follows a teenaged construction worker named Latif (Hossein Abedini). Latif is Iranian, as are most of the workers who toil daily at what must be a large suburban office building but whose dank, crumbling walls more closely resemble the remnants of an air raid. Among the workers are a few Afghans. Because of their illegal status, the Afghans must hide whenever government inspectors call, which happens quite often, sending the site manager, a gruff but soft-hearted man named Memar, into fits of hysterics as he corals his motley work force from one hiding place to another. Memar himself is of undetermined ethnicity (he speaks both Farsi and Turkish), which does nothing to ingratiate him with Latif, who already suspects him of embezzling the workersí salary. Latif and Memar fight constantly. There are undeniable racial overtones in their scuffles but director/writer Majid Majidi tends to diffuse the tension with comedy and the results are amusing but watered down. Just about the only retribution Latif suffers is being relegated to the post of kitchen boy.

Their mutual antagonism comes to a head with the arrival of a mysterious Afghan boy who eventually supplants Latif in the kitchen and becomes the primary target of Latifís jealous wrath. When the boy turns out to be a girl, though, Latifís hostility turns into pity which then turns into love. He spends the rest of the movie acting as her guardian angel, saving her from one pitfall after another, and eventually giving her an entire monthís wages so that she can return to her home in Afghanistan.

Hossein Abedini, who plays Latif, is a natural actor who can suggest the confusion of adolescence without making it feel mawkish or sentimental. Latifís sudden change of heart may be one of the movieís less plausible developments, but Mr. Abedini deserves credit for transforming this improbable rite of passage into a hypnotic series of ghost-like encounters. As he tries to track down the elusive girl (whom inspectors have expelled from the construction site), he meets a series of Afghan refugees, spanning age and gender, who mysteriously begin to disappear one by one. They could be hallucinations, as could be Latifís final encounter with the girl, whose real name we learn is also the movieís title, which translates to "rain." Without a single line of dialogue, her presence is ethereal but her face is the image that sticks with us the longest. Itís a spare and simple face, devoid of ornament but possessing a profound sadness, and when she pulls the burka over it, we know that Latif has seen it for the last time.

Majid Majidi, whose previous films Children of Heaven and Color of Paradise were unabashed crowd-pleasers, demonstrates again his almost effortless ability to entertain his audience. Baran works like a short story, delivering its message in terse, rapid fire punches. And without much effort, it leaves you exhausted after a mere 98 minutes. Majidi, who won the directing award at Iranís Fajr Film Festival, is less of a polemic than his contemporaries, but Baran is his most politically attuned work to date, even if it deals with its subjects in oblique, almost poetic terms. Afghanistan, for its part, remains a potent off-screen presence, a beckoning force that can be felt but not understood.


[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Miramax Films
Movie Web site: Baran

 

 
Kandahar

Not quite a "journey into the heart of Afghanistan" (as the ads indicate), Kandahar is a sun-induced hallucination of what such a journey might be like. The first shots of the movie are of a solar eclipse as seen through the burkaís mesh and its blinding effects seem to have irradiated the heroine into a kind of waking stupor. The heroine is an Afghan-Canadian journalist named Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) , who returns to her homeland after receiving a suicidal note from her sister who lives in the city of Kandahar. Nafasí journey is long and rambling and may have only taken place in her head. But, as the movieís director Mohsen Makhmalbaf implicitly asks in every scene, what is Afghanistan but a state of mind?

Starting her trek from the Iran-Afghanistan border, Nafas disguises herself as the fourth wife of an elderly Afghan man. Ever the journalist, she chatters incessantly into her recorder, usually in English and usually in surprisingly banal platitudes that only trivialize her plight. Makhmalbaf, who wrote the screenplay and edited the picture, has never been one to fret over dialogue and Kandahar is certainly no exception. Itís power lies in its images, and as Nafas travels deeper into Afghanistan, she is photographed in a series of increasingly striking poses that transform female oppression into a highly photogenic state of grace.

As Nafasí desperation grows (she has only three days to reach Kandahar before her sister kills herself, on the day of the last solar eclipse of the century), the images grow more and more dreamlike. Entire communities materialize out of the empty desert. At one point, Nafas encounters a madrasah, a Koranic school, where boys with Kalishnakov rifles intone verses from their holy book as a bearded mullah looks on. Later, with the help of an English-speaking doctor, she wanders into a Red Cross relief center for mine victims. In the movieís most memorable sequence, the handicapped men chase after an airdrop of prosthetic limbs. Their race verges on the ludicrous but thereís also a sense of futility, as if God were mocking them. Makhmalbaf photographs it like a reverie, every sense heightened, every detail magnified.

Kandahar was shot in secret along the Iran-Afghanistan border, often under the watchful eyes of Taliban soldiers, and the movie show signs of its stressful production. The looping is poor and the acting by non-professionals is bad enough to induce laughter during the most serious moments. Ms. Pazira, who plays Nafas, is a non-professional actress who plays a variation of herself. Her true story caught the attention of Makhmalbaf, who had been planning to make a documentary on Afghanistan. (In real life, as in the movie, Pazira never reaches her destination.) But Kandahar, with its subjective points of view, is about as far away from a documentary you can get. Itís final sequence is a Fellini-esque wedding procession which Nafas joins in a final bid to reach Kandahar. With its multi-colored burkas and loud chanting, the procession feels vaguely supernatural and it could even represent the final throes of Nafasí delirium. When the procession is halted by Taliban troops, the dream finally descends into nightmare.

As in Baran, the native Afghans portrayed in Kandahar are more apparition than human, condemned to roam the Earth in a state of limbo and destined, it seems, to return to their homeland again and again. In short, to be an Afghan is to be an exile. Itís a constant state of fleeing and returning. What remains of their home, however, is something about which we can only guess, or dream.


[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Avatar Films
Movie Web site: Kandahar

 


 

Kandahar photos: © 2001 Avatar Films. All rights reserved.
Baran photos: © 2001 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.