'Kandahar" isn't a catchy title, and when the movie premièred at the Cannes film festival last spring, most Americans barely recognized it as the name of a city in Afghanistan, at that time a land that rarely grabbed headlines.
Critics dutifully went to see the picture because it was directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of several Iranian filmmakers who have put their nation at the creative center of world cinema. While reviews were enthusiastic, the movie might never have reached American theaters if not for Sept. 11 and the resulting surge of interest in Middle Eastern culture and politics. Now, it's drawing more attention to Afghanistan than any production since the justly forgotten "Rambo III."
Inspired by real events, Makhmalbaf's deliberately disturbing tale focuses on an Afghan journalist whose sister, maimed by a Taliban land mine, has sent a letter announcing her determination to commit suicide during a coming solar eclipse. Hoping to thwart this sad plan, the journalist travels to Iran from her new home in Canada, but discovers that crossing the Afghan border and reaching Kandahar is no easy task for a woman.
Taking advantage of traditional Islamic culture, she travels under cover of a full-length burqa that hides her identity and intentions as well as her face and form. Hostile forces still surround her, but sympathetic people come periodically to her aid. Among them are a schoolboy whose Koran studies aren't going well and a black American medical worker who's sacrificed his own comfort to lighten the suffering of others.
Makhmalbaf's earlier movies have played in American theaters, and the most popular - "Gabbeh" and "The Silence" - have earned applause for their colorful images and ear-pleasing sounds. If those films sometimes erred on the side of artiness, "Kandahar" turns in the opposite direction with unsparing depictions of poverty and pain, as when it details the efforts of land-mine amputees to obtain wooden legs that will enable them to live some semblance of a normal life.
The film has moments of delicate beauty, too, starting with its opening image of a solar eclipse - both a foreshadowing of the story and a symbolic reference to Islamic veiling, which similarly puts beauty and vitality behind a surface that obscures them from view. Makhmalbaf also has enough intellectual honesty to acknowledge the allure of traditions that some branches of Islamic culture have darkened by using them as instruments of power.
The film uses forced wearing of the burqa as a symbol of male domination, but at times it also fills the screen with stunning images of women whose unquenchable spirits are enhanced rather than dimmed by the woven veils that cover them.
While it's often harsh in style and melancholy in subject, "Kandahar" taps into veins of humor and compassion as well. Like so many other Iranian films of the past dozen years, it casts an illuminating light on the cultural climate of a troubled region and also on fundamental human conflicts that are recognizable around the globe.
Not rated; contains violence and suffering.