Arabian Nightmare

A road through hell paved with good intentions 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 just as the city of Kandahar fell to the Northern Alliance.

And the film is astonishingly well made, especially when you learn that the cast consisted almost entirely of amateurs, the production was guerrilla-style, and Makhmalbaf had to constantly wear a disguise as a result of all the death threats he was getting. 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 expatriated Afghan journalist (Nelofer Pazira, who attempted a similar journey in real life) must journey from Iran into Afghanistan and the heart of darkness that is Taliban-controlled Kandahar, to stop her despondent sister from committing suicide on the night of the 20th century's last eclipse.

Yet there is one significant and frustrating detail about the film: Having established the 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. Perhaps to one more familiar with Iranian cinema, an ending might be implied, but proving that any definite solution is implicit in the work is a challenge on a par with explaining Mulholland Drive's ending. (Thus, many critics proclaim both films to be brilliant, simply because it's easier to believe an art-house filmmaker has a grand master plan than that he ran out of time or money.)

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 is there. Thanks to recent news, we all know about the tyranny of the burka, 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 2001, so he was forced to cover some ground that has since been well trod. It's in the details that the film really shines. There are images of children being told not to pick up dolls, since 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.