The title of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf's (Gabbeh, Salaam Cinema) new feature is likely to draw more than the usual art-house crowd, especially in the U.S., where for the first time the Koran, and any book about terrorism, are flying off bookstore shelves. Unfortunately, Kandahar will not live up to any moviegoer's expectations. Didactic and slow-moving, it tests the endurance of even the most die-hard aficionado of Iranian cinema. The film's few revealing vignettes of everyday life are undermined by a threadbare plot, and an amateur cast that often improvises with disastrous results. Were it not for Ebraham Ghafouri's spectacular cinematography, Kandahar would be practically unbearable.
Nelofer Pazira, who plays Nafas, Makhmalbaf's heroine, approached the filmmaker a few years ago when she was attempting to enter Afghanistan, her former homeland. Pazira, who immigrated to Canada in 1989, had seen Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist, a sympathetic portrayal of Afghan refugees, and asked the filmmaker to help her rescue a despondent female friend in Taliban ruled territory. Makhmalbaf was unable to do anything for Pazira at the time. She went back to Canada and the filmmaker began researching conditions in Afghanistan, even embarking on a brief trip there, before deciding to make Kandahar in 2000. Filmed near the Iran-Afghanistan border, it imagines the journey Pazira would have embarked upon.
Kandahar opens in a helicopter flying over Afghanistan. Nafas is the only passenger. She continually speaks into a tape recorder, her "black box" in case she doesn't get out of the country alive. Through her recordings, we learn that Nafas escaped as a girl, but her sister, crippled by a landmine, stayed behind with their father. No longer able to endure her restricted lifestyle under the Taliban, she tells Nafas she will soon commit suicide.
Since women are unable to travel alone, Nafas is forced to engage a number of male traveling companions, among them an elderly Afghan man; Tabib (Hassan Tanta™), a black American posing as a doctor; and Khak (Sadou Teymouri), a young Afghan boy expelled from school. None of the characters is well-drawn, but each is equally contrived to reveal shocking facts about Taliban ruled Afghanistan. For instance, doctors cannot touch their female patients; when Nafas goes to Tabib's office, she is examined through a hole in a curtain. In the religious school, Khak learns to recite the Koran, but also salient facts about the weapons of war, including the now infamous Kalishnikov rifle. This laundry list of Taliban sins, accompanied by Pazira's droning voice, is a dreary lesson, not a movie.
Haunting scenes of women in colorful burkas--full-body veils--against the white sand dunes of Afghanistan are dramatic when you first see them, but they're meaningless because Makhmalbaf never gets inside the burka. The images are not inspired by any profound insight. If you didn't know about the misogynistic practices of the Taliban before September 11, or the appalling conditions of family life under their rule, you do now. Kandahar adds nothing because it fails to tell a compelling story.