Kandahar
dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Opens Fri Jan 18
Cinema 21

Kandahar has often been compared to the poetic, politically radical works of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Though the comparison stands, the image that opens the film is straight out of Fellini: a flock of disembodied prosthetic limbs, dangling from parachutes, floating down from the clouds to a gaggle of one-legged Afghan refugees in a Red Cross encampment, stumbling madly across the scarred earth on crutches to catch them.

Makhmalbaf doesn't luxuriate over the scene, he merely states it--stopping to notice both the surreal, disjunctive beauty of plastic legs adrift in the blue sky and the cruel absurdity of the moment itself--thereby setting a tone of belligerent literalism that will pervade this fascinating, brutal film.

Kandahar tells the story of Nafas, a female Afghan expatriate, now living in Canada and working as a journalist. Her sister is still trapped in the title city, maimed by a land mine and unable to tolerate the subhuman conditions for women, which are enforced under Taliban rule. When the sister writes of her intention to commit suicide, Nafas decides to return to Kandahar and intervene.

What follows is, actually, not even a journey--it's a human smuggling operation. Because women are forbidden by Taliban law from traveling unaccompanied in Afghanistan, Nafas must pay for the privilege of posing as the fourth wife in an Afghan refugee family. As the money changes hands, Nafar is handed the garment whose presence will function as the moral center of the film from here on out: the vile burqa. We soon lose the family; when their little cart is plundered by roadside bandits (as the docile husband prays fearfully to Allah), they ditch Nafar and flee back to the relative safety of Iran (!). But Nafar remains, trapped inside the pornographic cloth for the remainder of her quest.

It's one thing to know that female victims of Islamic fascism are forced, under pain of torture, to cover the entirety of their bodies with heavy fabric at all times; it's quite another, particularly for those of us who have never left the West, to see--or notice--the dehumanizing reality of that fabric for the first time. A woman doesn't wear a burqa, she is confined within one. Much of the film's power lies in the mounting discomfort of sharing that confinement: seeing through the tiny eyeholes, hearing the labored breathing within. Once the burqa is introduced, it's fair to say that Kandahar becomes a horror film whose primary subject and symbol is the burqa itself.

When Nafar makes the mistake of lifting the hood, her "husband" reprimands her, saying that the burqa is "not for show; it's a matter of honor!" He's right, of course: A matter of honor is precisely what those things are; honor warped and honor thwarted. Women's hands poke out of burqas, surreptitiously applying nail polish and lipstick to their unseen bodies, while bracelets jingle at their wrists. Is this the height of vanity, or its opposite: their only recourse for preserving some sense of physical dignity? That dignity is again assailed by barbaric medical procedures: Unhooded women patients put their mouths up to a hole in a cloth wall that separates them from the doctor (and protects them from his gaze), who instructs a young male interlocutor to "tell her to say, 'Ahh.'"

Kandahar's climactic image is also its most troubling. Having navigated her trail of tears, Nafar finds herself amidst a party of several dozen women traveling on foot to a wedding in Kandahar. Their burqas are arrayed in a multicolored vibrancy that's both surprising (because one imagines the burqa to be dull and dark, though Nafar's is pale blue) and startling, because of the mute beauty of this rainbow of little tents drifting across the horizon in a long shot.

The beauty is confusing, even sinister, because of the implicit suffering that generates it. Like the floating prosthetics at the film's outset, it's also semi-comical; you could imagine a similar set piece in Monty Python's Life of Brian. But there's nothing remotely funny here. As we get a little closer, noticing the bare feet and hobbled, pitiful gait, the procession begins to resemble a parade of dead, or should I say, murdered, souls.