Nightmare at high noon

On the road to a fundamentalist apocalypse in Afghanistan.

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By any measure Kandahar, the latest film from Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf, is roughly hewn: The acting is mostly mediocre or worse; the dubbing is sloppy; the narrative thread snipped into anecdotal pieces. But it’s also a film of visual surprises and an abiding strangeness that lingers long after one’s initial viewing. It is, to use a devalued critical cliché, “haunting.” There’s an unearthly quality about it that’s both lyrical and unsettling.

There’s also little doubt that, pre-Sept. 11, Kandahar wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of any kind of extensive art-house release or any sort of American release at all outside of, maybe, New York or one’s local film society or equivalent. For all the worthy efforts of places like the Detroit Film Theatre, new Iranian cinema remains a cognoscenti’s taste, the work of its leading lights (which include Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kairostami and Jafar Panahi) being too ostentatiously the reflections of a culture which has long remained opaque to the West, too resolutely Third World. But catastrophe has aroused our interest.

Some Iranian films have couched their social critiques in the form of allegories, using children as substitutes for put-upon adults and passive-aggressive quietude in the place of direct commentary. But Kandahar is unabashedly an exposé, a condemnation of the Taliban from a Muslim’s point of view. And though it’s an aestheticized vision in the sense of its imagistic beauty, none of the details have been fabricated for effect.

Its central character, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), is returning to Afghanistan after having fled the country with her family for Canada when she was a teenager some 10 years earlier. Her sister, who stayed behind, has lost her legs to a land mine and has written Nafas that her despair has reached the point where she plans to commit suicide during the coming solar eclipse, the last of the millennium.

Nafas is a broadcast journalist and records her impressions of her now-strange homeland into her portable tape recorder. Donning the requisite burqa, she first travels with an old man, ready to pretend to be one of his wives if they’re stopped and questioned by the authorities. After a group of thieves robs the man of his small truck, she sets out on the road, meeting a series of benefactors of varying reliability: a small boy who will guide her for 50 dollars but doesn’t seem to know where he’s going; a doctor who turns out to be an African-American, disillusioned with his adopted country but still determined to help in his small way; two Eastern European Red Cross nurses who are swamped by one-legged men demanding prosthetics; and finally a one-armed scoundrel who dons burqa drag and persuades her to join a group of women who are supposedly walking to Kandahar for a wedding.

Nafas’ mission is a race against the clock — that solar eclipse is looming — and she has the misfortune of finding herself not only in a land that time has forgotten but a land that has forgotten time. It’s like an absurdist fairy tale where the goal keeps receding the more one advances. Meanwhile we’re dazzled, almost against our will, by the grotesque images, by the eerie beauty of a group of women in their ghastly but brightly covered burqas, by the horrid intensity of a group of young children chanting frenzied prayers over their Kalasnikovs, by the poignant dissonance of a small army of one-legged men hobbling toward the surreal manna of artificial legs dropping from the heavens on little parachutes.

The Afghanistan of the Taliban was such a pure dystopia that it seems hard to believe that it was real. It’s true that while totalitarianism reduces its citizens to chattel and children, it offers, along with a domination that most people would instinctively balk at, a sharp sliver of appeal, that of certainty in a frequently indifferent and randomly cruel universe. But the extent of the subjugation shown here is nearly beyond comprehension.

Kandahar, for all its technical deficiencies, has the impact of an Orwellian fable, with the added gloss that it’s nearly a documentary — albeit one put together by someone who is more poetical than polemical.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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