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Safar e Ghandehar (Kandahar)

(2001) ** 1/2 Unrated
85 min. Avatar. Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Cast: Niloufar Pazira, Sadou Teymouri, Hassan Tantai, Hayatalah Hakimi.

Sometimes felicitous timing can make the difference between unimagined success and obscurity. Kandahar, by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf has reaped the dubious distinction of success made possible by the horrible turn of global events ascribed to September of 2001. Before September 11, even distribution seemed a distant and faint hope, but after September 11, Time magazine was naming this suddenly hot property the film of the year. While Kandahar has the incomparable vitality of its moment, this social document is essentially a polemic, with often pokey dramatic results.

The film's Afghani star, Nelofer Pazira, unwittingly initiated the film when she entreated Makhmalbaf to document and aid her in her own treacherous journey to Afghanistan. Pazira wished to visit a female friend troubled by the iron rule of the Taliban government, but Makhmalbaf declined to aid her at that time; compelled, he later sought Pazira out to star, among other appropriate non-actors, in an amplified version of her own concerns. The resulting picture strings together footage that is essentially documentary with Makhmalbaf's jerry-rigged drama. Pazira's character, on a quest to save a suicidal friend in the titular city, provides the thread in the form of audiotaped commentary on her mission and the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Sadly, this device is clunky and more alienating than compelling. Worse, this crucial narration suffers from poor mixing, and the film—-which is partly acted in English and partly subtitled—-opens with a conversation inexplicably dubbed into English.

Nevertheless, the film maintains a certain suspense, as a sort of high-stakes Afghani version of The Straight Story (though the resolution of this central story is needlessly abrupt). Makhmalbaf sees the absurdity behind the horror, depicting prosthetic legs falling out of the sky over scrambling, desperate amputees and doctors toting sidearms; he also devises a striking image to frame the film, of an ominous eclipse viewed from behind the veil of the burka. The performers are solid enough, including Hassan Tantai as a muted but thoughtful American doctor. As a bizarre footnote, Tantai was recently "outed" as an alleged assassin, though the filmmaker has denied having any knowledge of his background. In the final equation, the greatest strengths of this solid but overrated film are the voyeuristic glimpses of real Afghani refugees whose faces betray the toll of recent policy, and Makhmalbaf's often potent visuals.

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