Dir: Samira Makhmalbaf. Iran-France. 2003. 106mins

Although dialogue-heavy longueurs that are endemic to Iranian cinema will make Samira Makhmalbaf's film - which won the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes - trying for some, adepts will welcome it with open arms. It is filmed in traditional Makhmalbafian family style, in which socio-political debate replaces conventional psychological realism. But here, as in Makhmalbaf's earlier films, The Apple and Blackboards, the rhetoric is always leavened with off-beat, even surrealist humour. Even better, the dialogue, revealing as it will be for Western audiences, is eventually redeemed and transcended by the powerfully expressive images that the films of Samira and her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have become known for.

As always, Makhmalbaf's focus is riveted on the immediate present, in this case on a post-Taliban Afghanistan in which girls are allowed to attend school for the first time. Although her previous films have largely kept their narrative distance, here she focuses closely on one of these girls, the ambitious Noqreh (Rezaie), who decides she wants to become the president of Afghanistan. At first this goal is treated humourously, by both the other characters and the director, but after a while we almost come to believe in this independent-minded young woman who is supremely proficient at skirting the restrictions of her religiously-observant father. As the film continues, alas, the overwhelming horror of the realities of present-day Afghanistan convince us that survival, let alone triumph, will be all she can hope for.

The sheer documentary service this film provides will alone make it important. The ruins of Kabal and the washed-out browns of a brutally unproductive landscape are everywhere, while Western military aircraft fly anonymously overhead. Yet, somehow, hope reigns, especially in the local school where young girls are told they can be anything they want to be. Some will consider the film politically naive, but it is clear that exploring the naivete is an important requisite for any possible progress, and this is Makhmalbaf's goal.

A young poet (Mohebi), much taken by Noqreh, encourages her ambition and cajoles a reluctant photographer to take pictures of her, on credit, for her campaign for school president. He also introduces the crucial poem that gives the film its title and, by the end, much of its thematic resonance.

But this director's strength lies in images, not character drama, and whole topics are subsumed in ravishing visuals abetted by exquisitely chosen sound. Two girls running across a barren landscape, or Noqreh carrying water down a dark tunnel, her forbidden high-heel shoes clicking resonantly, or a series of measured, funereal close-ups near the end of the film, say much more, if indirectly, than a thousand pages of dialogue.

The film's title comes from a Spanish poem about the ubiquity of death in the bullring, and its relevance grows as Noqreh, her sister-in-law and baby, and her father (who despite his fundamentalism, is always portrayed sympathetically) are forced to become refugees. As might be expected, things go from bad to worse. The poem - which is whispered at the very beginning of the film - now reaches its full relevance, bringing together larger themes that elevate Makhmalbaf's film beyond the narrow parameters of a girl's school and one girl's hoped-for life, beyond the present and future Afghanistan, into our relation with the nature that surrounds us and life and death itself.

Prod co: Makhmalbaf Film House, Wild Bunch, Bac Films
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch
Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Scr: Samira Makhmalbaf, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Ebrahim Ghafori
Mahammed Reza Dar Vishi
Main cast:
Agheleh Rezaie, Abdolgani Yousefrazi, Razi Mohebi