How quickly the burqa has become the most recognized symbol of oppression in modern times. Iranian writer/ director Moshen Makhmalbaf looks under the veil in "Kandahar," a deeply felt howl of frustration at the plight of Afghani womanhood in particular (and its citizenry in general) that makes up in indignation, passion and poetry what it lacks in filmmaking gloss.
A fictional story based on true-life events, the movie focuses on an Afghani refugee, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), who has escaped the devastation of her homeland to lead the life of a journalist in Canada. As the film begins, Nafas is taking the unexpected, unwanted step of going back into Afghanistan to be reunited with her sister, who lost her legs to a mine during the family's escape and was forced to remain in the country. The sister, despondent over the brutal abuses of the Taliban era, has sent Nafas a letter announcing her intention to take her own life during the last solar eclipse of the 20th century. Nafas' desperate hope of preventing that loss drives her to beg, bribe and connive her way into a country where women can no longer be educated, travel alone or show their faces in public. It's a hell worse than the one she used to know.
"Kandahar"'s Afghanistan is a body decimated by the diseases of violence, famine and religious extremism. Makhmalbaf avoids detailed explanation of those afflictions and lets the symptoms tell the story: There's little to misunderstand in the sight of a boy plucking jewelry from a corpse to sell for a few extra dollars, or of a physician (Hassan Tantai) forced to examine his female patients through a hole in a strategically placed curtain. Elsewhere, a class of wannabe Mullahs is taught mastery of the Koran and assault weaponry simultaneously, and a group of mine victims pleads with Red Cross representatives for prosthetic limbs in an extended bargaining session that's almost comical in its ghoulishness.
Makhmalbaf shot his film on the Afghan-Iranian border, using nonprofessionals as actors and incorporating their actual histories into the storyline. The results are predictably rough: The performers are responsible for some awkward line readings, and the audio levels are inconsistent.
As an overall experience, "Kandahar" feels a little less personal by Western standards than the one Makhmalbaf's countryman, Majid Majidi, offers in his splendid, similarly themed parable "Baran" (which has yet to open in Orlando). Unlike Majidi, Makhmalbaf places his stock not in narrative flow but in a series of transfixing tableaus. Once you've seen a flock of the disfigured limping toward an air-drop of artificial legs floating from the sky on parachutes, you aren't likely to forget it.
Like the people he champions, Makhmalbaf has to look for his beauty in the oddest of places.