Dir: Abolfazl Jailili. Iran/Japan 2001. 96mins

Socially poignant and often visually poetic, Delbaran, the new Iranian film from the gifted helmer Abolfazl Jailili, was one of Locarno Festival's few undisputed artistic highlights. Continuing the tradition of recent Iranian films about children, the story centres on a 14-year-old Afghan refugee, caught in the political chaos that describes life on the border town which gives the feature its title. Though not as powerful or arresting as Kandahar , Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Cannes-premiered feature, which also explored in serio-comic manner the current plight of Afghan refugees, Delbaran is certain to play well with appreciative audiences on the global festival and arthouse scenes following its screening at Toronto next month.

After crossing the border, Kaim (Alizadeh) finds shelter in a tavern at Delbaran, a village surrounded by a vast desert. He's quickly adopted by the owners, an elderly couple, Khan and his much older wife Khale, who treat him like their son. Extremely industrious, Kaim seems to be constantly working, repairing tyres, lending a hand in the kitchen and accompanying the disabled Khale to the doctor. The villain of the piece, who, like all the other characters is eventually humanised by Jalili, is police officer Mahadavi (played by an actor named Mahadavi), whose job it is to track illegal labourers. In one of the film's strongest - and funniest - scenes, Khale, a harsh woman unfazed by any authority, demands that Kaim be released from jail after he's arrested by the cop.

Ironically, the word Delbaran means lovers. Indeed, not so long ago, the place was a romantic spot, where people courted and planned their hopeful futures. However, when a new road was built between Iran and Afghanistan, it passed around Delbaran's tavern, changing the site into a centre for illegal workers and smuggled drugs and goods, the most valuable of which are car parts. Since trucks rarely stop there anymore, the point is depressingly empty; in retaliation, Khan spreads nails across the new road to damage the vehicles using it. The film's recurring visual motif is that of broken trucks with flat tyres in constant need of repair.

At first, the film seems shapeless, but gradually it becomes clear that the casualness with which the events are presented is most suitable for the film's broader goal. Delbaran boasts asymmetrical beginning and ending, in which Kaim is shown running along the road, lost, both literally and metaphorically, in the magnificent expanses of the desert. The end credits signal an arbitrary closure to a story that has no ending, encouraging the viewers to contemplate the fate of Kaim - and other immigrants in exile. It's to Jalili's credit that Delbaran achieves lyrical quality while depicting the most painful and devastating reality. Indeed, the film describes the 'routine'; existence of people overwhelmed by the shock of exile, whose ordinary lives are anything but ordinary.

Jalili's earlier feature, the prize-winning Dance Of Dust, shot in 1991 and shelved by the Iranian government until 1998, was an almost silent film, with minimal dialogue, in its portrait of the mundane existence of a group of brick makers in a dusty, godforsaken spot. Similarly, based on sparse verbal communication, for long stretches of time, Delbaran carries itself exclusively through its vigorous visual imagery.

In a press conference, Jalili said that "it was an accident that I chose an Afghan boy for the leading part"; yet his decision not only adds a realistic dimension to the story, but also contributes to its overall effect. Dedicated to "all the children of war," Delbaran belongs to a well-established genre of world cinema that centres on children in dire economic existence and political upheaval. And while it's not as devastating as Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados (aka The Young And The Damned) or Hector Babenco's Pixote to name two landmarks pictures, Jalili's film is remarkable in its refusal to sentimentalise its teenage protagonist in the manner that Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and other Neo-Realist films about children did in the late1940s. Endowed with native intelligence and animalistic survival instincts, Kaim achieves nobility of spirit in the most catastrophic conditions.

Pro co: An Office Kitano and Bandal Visual presentation of a Film-e-Aval (Iran) and T-MarkInc (Japan) production
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris
Exec prod: Masayuki Mori
Prods: Jalili, Shozo Ichiyama
Scr: Jalili
Cinematographer: Mohammad Ahmadi
Sound: Hassan Zarfam
Main cast: Keem Alizadeh, Rahmatollah Ebrahimi, Hossein Hashemian, Ahmad