Arabian Nightmare

A road through hell, paved with good intentions, points the way to Kandahar

Mar 6, 2002 at 4:00 am
It would be easy, and tempting, to hail Kandahar as a masterpiece without even seeing it: It's a foreign film, it takes on social issues, it's directed by Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf, it speaks to the causes of our war on terror and it first hit U.S. shores right as the city of Kandahar fell to the Northern Alliance. When Time's Richard Corliss, who presumably has seen the film, named it the best of 2001, he cited many of the aforementioned factors, in addition to the film's visual beauty.

And the film is astonishingly well made, especially when you learn that the cast consisted almost entirely of amateurs, the production was guerrilla-style and Makhmalbaf had to constantly wear a disguise as a result of all the death threats he was getting. Makhmalbaf's last film to play LA screens (though not his most recent), A Moment of Innocence, which showed the Henry Jagloms and Lars von Trierses of the world how a self-referential indie film should be done, was one of the cinematic highlights of 2000, and this one doesn't disappoint on a qualitative level. It's also accessible to those unaccustomed to Iranian cinema; almost half the dialogue is in English and the story plays like a feminist's Apocalypse Now: An expatriated Afghan journalist (Nelofer Pazira, who attempted a similar trip in real life) must journey from Iran into Afghanistan, and the heart of darkness that is Taliban-controlled Kandahar, to stop her despondent sister from committing suicide on the night of the 20th century's last eclipse.

Yet there is one significant and frustrating detail about the film: Having established the premise, the film ends before the journey does. It isn't possible to spoil the ending, for there really isn't one; the quest simply continues out of our sight. It's as if The Fellowship of the Ring were titled Mordor and had no guaranteed sequels. Perhaps to one more familiar with Iranian cinema, an ending might be implied, but proving that any definite solution is implicit in the work is a challenge on a par with explaining Mulholland Drive's ending.

That said, Kandahar is still a film worth your time, and if you know going into it that there's no closure, it'll give you all the more freedom to enjoy what is there. Thanks to recent news, we all know about the tyranny of the burqa. We also have some idea that, as one character puts it, "weapons are the only modern thing in Afghanistan." Makhmalbaf made the film before September 2001, so he was forced to cover some ground that has since been well-trodden upon. It's in the details that the film really shines.