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Avatar Films
Official Site
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Producer: Syamak Alagheband
Writer: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Cast: Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tanti, Sadou Teymouri

Rating: out of 5

Before it was violently forced into our collective consciousness after 9/11, most Americans were blissfully unaware of the existence of the Afghan city of Kandahar. Also for the most part we were ignorant of this small Iranian film that won the Ecumenical jury prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Coming to us on the heels of such infamy, Kandahar proves to be worthy beyond the merely satisfying a morbid curiosity when it was arrived on U.S. screens.

Inspired by a real story, Kandahar depicts the journey of Nafas, (Pazira, the real-life model for the character) an Afghan woman living in Canada, who attempts to travel to Kandahar to save her sister, who has threatened to commit suicide out of despair at what has become of her country. Since women aren't allowed to travel alone, Nafas must bribe guides to smuggle her into the city, while trying to avoid the Taliban, and banditswho prey on travelers. Incidentally, the film isn't really about the Taliban, who make only a small appearance toward the end. Rather, it's a portrait of life under the most desperate of circumstances and what these conditions can do to wither a people's spirit.

Instead of trying to shock us with graphic depictions of brutality, Makhmalbaf takes a more sophisticated approach. There are no massacres, rapes, or executions in this film, even though we know these things happen and the reality of them stays in the back of our minds. Kandahar shows how poverty, the constant presence of danger (which can come in the form of idle gossip, or even a doll), and the absence of hope has turned the Afghans into a race of scavengers who can't afford to trust one another. Children rob the dead, amputees try to con exasperated Red Cross workers, women hide behind burqas and men behind fake beards. The wretchedness of life in Afghanistan is so startling that Makhmalbaf doesn't really need to hammer home his point with blood and tears.

Shot like a documentary, Kandahar is squarely in the tradition of third-world neorealist cinema. The casting of non-professionals does lead to some clumsy scenes, but Pezira's restrained, aloof performance matches the tone of the film perfectly. Even though the budget is minimal and the landscape barren, the film manages to capture images both surreal and beautiful-most impressively a joyless but colorful wedding procession through the desert.

As much as there is to admire about Kandahar, it still seems like a failure, for the intent of the film is not as dispiriting as the actual effect turns out to be. We're meant to take comfort in Nafas' perseverance, and hope that the Afghans can match her courage and find their way out of the darkness, but the film gives us so little cause for hope and the sense of ruin so permeates it, that instead we find ourselves identifying more with Nafas' struggle to come up with a persuasive argument for why her sister should have faith in a better tomorrow.

Edward Rholes


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