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Arabian Nightmare

A road through hell points the way to Kandahar.

It would be easy and tempting to hail Kandahar as a masterpiece without even seeing it: It's a foreign film; it takes on social issues; it's directed by Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf; it speaks to the causes of our war on terror and first hit U.S. shores right as the city of Kandahar fell to the Northern Alliance. When Time's Richard Corliss, who presumably has seen the film, named it the best of 2001, he cited many of the aforementioned factors, in addition to the film's visual beauty.

And the film is astonishingly well made, especially when you consider the cast, which consists almost entirely of amateurs, the guerrilla-style production and the disguise Makhmalbaf had to constantly wear as a result of all the death threats he was getting. The director's last film to play on American screens, though not his most recent, A Moment of Innocence (which showed the Henry Jagloms and Lars Von Trierses of the world how a self-referential indie film should be done), was one of the cinematic highlights of 2000. This one doesn't disappoint on a qualitative level, either. It's also very accessible to those unaccustomed to Iranian cinema, as almost half the dialogue is in English, and the story plays like a feminist's Apocalypse Now: An expatriate Afghan journalist (Nelofer Pazira, who attempted a similar journey in real life) must journey from Iran into Afghanistan, toward the heart of darkness that is Taliban-controlled Kandahar, to stop her despondent sister from committing suicide on the night of the twentieth century's last eclipse.

Yet there is one significant and frustrating detail about the film: Having established this premise, the film ends before the journey does. It isn't possible to spoil the ending, as there really isn't one; the quest simply continues out of our sight. It's as if The Fellowship of the Ring were titled Mordor and had no guaranteed sequels. Perhaps an ending might be implied to one more familiar with Iranian cinema, but proving that any definite solution is implicit in the work is a challenge.

That said, Kandahar is still a film worth your time, and if you know going into it that there's no closure, it'll give you all the more freedom to enjoy what isthere. Thanks to recent news, we all know about the tyranny of the burqa, which masks women head to toe and causes them to resemble large pepper pots. We also have some idea that, as one character puts it, "weapons are the only modern thing in Afghanistan." Makhmalbaf made the film before September 11, 2001, so he covered some ground that has since been well trod upon. It's in the details that the film really shines.

Among the characters escorting our heroine are a young boy (Sadou Teymouri) who was kicked out of religious school for, among other things, not giving the correct word-for-word definition of a Kalashnikov rifle; an African-American "doctor" (Hassan Tantaï) hiding under a fake beard and working with only the most basic medical knowledge of the average Westerner, thus making him an expert by Afghan standards; and a one-handed hustler who scams prosthetic legs from relief workers for resale. All are essentially playing themselves. The most significant stretch required by an actor occurred when a local mullah who disagreed with his government's use of military force agreed to play a stricter, pro-Taliban mullah. Of the actors, only Pazira, Tantaï and Teymouri are even credited in any official capacity (and recent reports allege that Tantaï may in fact be a terrorist hiding behind an alias); the rest presumably seek anonymity to protect themselves.

Then there are the images of children being told not to pick up dolls, in case they might be booby-trapped to explode, or the scene in which a whole crowd of amputees on crutches set off as fast as they can toward a series of slowly descending parachutes containing mechanical legs. At that moment, you don't know whether to laugh, cry or wonder what drugs someone must have slipped you. Then you realize it's simply a reenactment of a weekly occurrence, and all you can do is praise the director for bringing such absurd tragedy to the world's attention.

 
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