Veils of Tears Frame Lives In Kandahar - "Kandahar" Review

By Elvis Mitchell The New York Times

"Kandahar" is bound to attract potential audiences, if only because it may be the only film whose name gets more mentions than Harry Potter on CNN. Though the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's picture was filmed long before today's breaking news from Afghanistan, it is worthy of some attention because it happens to portray the culture -- specifically the treatment of women in that Taliban stronghold -- in forceful and dramatic terms.

An Afghan journalist, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), who left Afghanistan and is now based in Canada, goes back home to find her troubled sister. Mr. Makhmalbaf isn't much of a storyteller, and Ms. Pazira is more than his equal in her lack of acting ability. She looks slightly distracted when staring into the camera; she seems to be waiting for instructions to change expression to come over an ear piece, and the instructions never quite get there. Yet she has the command of someone who is accustomed to sitting before the camera and holds positions as if she were born to be there, which makes her the film's star by sheer power of concentration. (In real life Ms. Pazira, who grew up in Kabul, is a Canadian television journalist.) To say that she doesn't lend a great deal of emotional credibility to "Kandahar," which opens today at the Lincoln Plaza, is an understatement.

As Nafas slips into Afghanistan to begin her search, she runs into a number of situations that almost make the movie seem to be taking place on a back lot, a dreamy Never-was Land where each scene is a setup for another surprise. (The movie was filmed in Iran.) But the bleached, sun-beaten landscapes are undeniably real, as are the hardships that the women suffer as they battle to survive the inhospitable land and the rigidity of the Taliban. Children play and pray while machine guns, worn and obviously used, sit near their feet. Desperation has a ghostly presence here: it's never spoken, but we can feel it nonetheless, and it's a part of the everyday life in the encampments where these women live.

Nafas meets a doctor who treats women in a most unusual fashion, at least to Westerners, and who isn't what he seems. He talks to his female patients while they're under a sheet -- he views them through a hole -- and the low-key assurance in his voice is a marvelous contradiction to the strangeness of the situation. By this point Ms. Pazira's vacant stare has become a part of the texture of Kandahar: you almost can't imagine anybody else -- certainly not someone who might actually react to these unusual proceedings -- as the lead.

On this level the director displays talent by providing notes of absurdity and unforgettable visuals. Somehow it's as if he is cognizant that his star, and most of the rest of the cast, for that matter, simply can't carry a scene. His compensatory touches have a jaw-dropping power: for example a shot of prosthetic limbs parachuting onto the bleak desert landscape as scores of handicapped men on crutches await the legs as they fall from the sky. When he pulls off things like this, "Kandahar" feels like a Magritte painting rendered in sand tones, and your eyes are drawn to the screen.

There aren't enough of these moments, though, and Mr. Makhmalbaf lessens their power by repeating them. He knows he is dealing with a hot, potent subject, and he has an eye for astonishing imagery, which he integrates into "Kandahar" in such a way that the film occasionally succeeds on its own made-under-a-full-moon terms: it's a wide-screen daydream. But the way the film works defeats any melodramatic urgency in this tale of enduring punishment. The awful moments he creates have the time-delay impact of a nightmare: the potency of the horrors hit and linger after the freakishness of an image or a moment fades away and the creeping realization of exactly what you've just witnessed finally hits you. Sometimes that impact comes like a blow to the back of the head.

Originally Published December 14, 2001

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