Dir: Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Iran/ France. 2001. 85 mins.

An astonishing journey through the archaic, rarely seen world of Afghanistan, Kandahar is a polished, sumptuously photographed indictment of conditions there. Aimed, with its part English-language soundtrack and scenes spelling out the political situation, squarely at an international audience it is, if anything, perhaps too smoothly packaged. One regrets the quirky, edgy quality which energises many of the smaller Iranian films.

There's also the sense that the oppression of women under Islam is ground already well covered in recent years by Makhmalbaf's own daughter, Samira in The Apple and by his wife, Marzieh Meshkini, in The Day I Became A Woman, as well as in other films such as The Circle and Daughters Of The Sun. However, the director's name and the polish of the feature should ensure festival kudos and plenty of arthouse exposure.

In a slightly heavy-handed opening scene, the background to the story (inspired by a real-life case) is explained by Nafas (Pazira), an Afghani journalist living in Canada, to a helicopter pilot flying her back into Afghanistan across the Iranian border. Having fled her homeland during the civil war with the Taliban, she has received a letter from her younger sister, who was left behind after losing her legs in a land mine explosion and now announces her intention to commit suicide at the next solar eclipse. In the hope of dissuading her, Nafas has already tried unsuccessfully to enter Afghanistan by other routes and is now making one last attempt. However she now has just three days to reach her sister in the town of Kandahar before the eclipse.

Her journey across the desert is fraught with difficulties. She begins by finding a family making the trip who, for a payment of $200, agree to include her in their party disguised, in a heavy veil, or 'burka', as the man's fourth wife. However, after the group are robbed of all their possessions on the road by bandits (who fortunately fail to find Nafas's stash of dollars), the husband insists on returning to Iran and she turns to a small boy, Khak, who has just been expelled from Koran school, to be her guide.

Khak is a cheeky, unreliable character more interested in looting the dead bodies which litter the road than in speeding to their destination. When Nafas falls ill after drinking polluted water, she finds another helper in the shape of an English-speaking doctor who, in an extraordinary revelation, turns out to be an African-American man.

This intriguing character (also based on a real person) is a former militant who had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980s to enlist in the war against the Soviet Union and, though dismayed by what he found there, decided to stay in his search for spiritual enlightenment. In one of the film's more bizarre and pointed scenes, he removes his luxuriant false beard (he is unable to grow his own), remarking that the rules governing men are as inflexible as those for women and that his beard is the male version of the burka.

A fourth guide appears for the final stretch of Nafas's journey, first discovered cadging a set of artificial legs from the health workers dispensing them to the many victims of land mines. Undeterred by the fact that he himself is uninjured, he argues that, given the perils of the terrain, it's best always to have a spare pair on you, just in case. This man arranges for him and Nafas to infiltrate a wedding party of women walking through the desert to Kandahar.

Although the story is initially set up as a race against time, the figure of the sister (who is never seen) proves something of a McGuffin: as in other Iranian films driven by the motive of a quest or journey, there are numerous digressions, and the strange characters and events encountered on the way are more important than the final destination.

The film's various digressions include a lecture to small girls, who are told to regard themselves as ants, since then the homes in which they're destined to spend their lives won't seem as confining; a Koran school, where boys are instructed in the use of guns as much as in the scriptures; a medical examination, where female patients are received behind a thick screen with a single hole through which the doctor peers at the affected organ; and a grotesque race between a group of one-legged men towards a pair of new prostheses drifting on a parachute through the sky.

Many of these details and images are remarkable (Makhmalbaf clearly likes the one of the flying legs, since it also appears at the beginning of the film), and build up a picture of a mysterious culture which has remained virtually untouched by the modern world. Ebrahim Ghafouri's luminous photography finds beauty in the harshest conditions.

The script is less successful. In several scenes one has the distinct impression of being lectured at and, while one applauds the film's passionate conviction, the bleakness of life and oppression of women under the Taliban are points which would be better left to emerge indirectly rather than constantly being driven home.

On the road, Nafas keeps a journal for her sister, dictating her thoughts into a pocket tape recorder (and speaking, for no very good reason, in English): she hopes to find reasons to convince her sister that life is still worth living. It's a cliched narrative device, although in this case a handy one, since Nafas' face is hidden for much of the time behind a veil so heavy one can't even see her eyes.

The film's ending is deeply ambiguous: reasons are indeed found for living, but Nafas concludes that she finds herself imprisoned back behind her veil. Ultimately she remains a bland, ill-defined character - one misses the expected climactic reunion with her sister - whose function is as an observer and mouthpiece for Makhmalbaf's message rather than as an individual in her own right.

Prod cosMakhmalbaf Film House, Bac.

French distMars Films.

Int'l salesWild Bunch.

Scr Makhmalbaf.

CinematographyEbrahim Ghafouri.


MusMR Darvishi.

Main castNiloufar Pazira, Tantai, Sadou Teymouri, Hayatalah Hakimi