The highest compliment I can pay to the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar is that it recalls the great Indian director Satyajit Ray's 1975 movie Distant Thunder. Both mourn social catastrophes: Ray the famine and epidemics ravaging Bengal during World War II; Makhmalbaf, the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And both focus their outrage on the enforced subordination of women to men.
Among the key images in each film are women moving through blighted landscapes like mythic entities. Of course, the Indians wear voluptuous saris, the Afghans puritanical burkas meant to hide any hint of sensuality. And the repression of the Afghans is much more cruel and extreme.
But when you put the movies back-to-back and watch all-male students taught by rote in 1940s Bengal and 1999 Afghanistan, the parallels are striking - even if in Distant Thunder the boys are imbibing information, and in Kandahar they're learning how to kill between portions of the Koran.
Because of Makhmalbaf's artistry in Kandahar, we're able to feel as if we're seeing in and out of the grid that bars the face in the burka's headpiece. Vignettes of the women trading secrets - and lipstick - suggest unsquelchable inner lives. The sight of burka-clad women moving en masse like a rainbow-colored arrowhead, through unforgiving geographic and political terrain, pays them an indelible visual tribute.
The movie has been accused of aestheticizing despair. Actually, Makhmalbaf, like Ray, invites us to see every shade of irony in his brutal juxtapositions: the black comedy beneath the beauty, the horror beneath the black comedy. Makhmalbaf can't sustain Ray's poetry and lucidity (these days, who can?). The movie, for all its latent power, mixes the jagged and the wispy. But in Makhmalbaf's defense, he is not making a period piece - he is witnessing a present-tense apocalypse.
His picture could be called The Road to Kandahar, and Makhmalbaf would appreciate the joke. The movie has nothing approaching Hope and Crosby or Dorothy Lamour in a sarong. But it has its own strong brand of slaphappy - make that slap-unhappy - humor. It follows Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan expatriate who has become a journalist in Canada, as she returns to Afghanistan and struggles to make her way to Kandahar, where her sister has vowed to take her life at the last solar eclipse of the 20th century, three days hence.
Donning the burka and delivering an English narration into her tape recorder, Nafas must rely on a succession of unreliable to semi-reliable male guides: a husband traveling with many wives on a pickup cart; an urchin who can't see why she flinches when he scavenges a precious ring from a corpse; an American Black Muslim "doctor" who dispenses common-sense sanitation and dietary advice to female patients he can examine only through a hole in a blanket; a one-armed man hustling prosthetic legs.
Makhmalbaf delivers a series of sardonic blackout sketches that makes Nafas' plight progressively worse - to give one example, near the start, bandits strip the family Nafas travels with of its belongings. And he intersperses strokes of disturbing lyricism, like prosthetic limbs floating to the ground on parachutes, and land-mine victims hobbling toward them.
The scene in an international-aid station dispensing artificial legs is like a terrifying parody of service provider/customer relations. The limbs come in temporary and "permanent" designs, they're difficult to get and the lucky few are rarely satisfied. Men picking them up for their wives have the additional anxiety of bringing home limbs that probably won't fit. As the black medic suggests, the further you go into a landscape of despair, the more every human interaction becomes a risky negotiation.
Makhmalbaf loosely based Nafas' story on the experiences of his star, Pazira, a Canadian journalist who once attempted to reconnect with a close Afghan woman friend, but never made it from Iran into Afghanistan. What sticks with you are anecdotes and images that barely seem connected to Nafas' narrative: a boy dismissed from school for not getting exactly right how the Kalashnikov rifle "kills the living, destroys their flesh and mutilates the bodies of those already dead"; a man removing a fake beard and describing it as a male burka. What proves the validity of Kandahar is that, by the end, all these scenes are human ruins of the same nightmare world.
Starring Nelofer Pazira and Hassan Tantai
Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Released by Avatar
Running time 85 minutes
Sun score ***