"At five in the afternoon comes death," claims a haunting snatch of poetry in this equally haunting picture from Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf. One of the first feature films to emerge from post-Taliban Afghanistan (making it a worthy companion piece to Siddiq Barmak's excellent Osama), this follows Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie) as she struggles to redefine her role as a woman despite the protestations of her cranky, conservative father (Abdolgani Yousefrazi). Yet with death and misery everywhere, freedom seems an unlikely luxury.
As Noqreh's father drags her and her sister-in-law (Marzieh Amiri) across this bombed-out dustbowl in search of her missing brother, it's clear that international intervention has done little to solve the problems of the country. Unexploded mines kill children, religious extremism is rife, and the people are disenfranchised by years of civil war and a lack of basic education. Too busy burying their dead relatives, people have no interest in politics and death seems ready to come at any hour of the day, not just at five. "Blasphemy is everywhere," claims Noqreh's despairing father. "Many have been killed, the country is in ruins."
"HARSH REALITIES OF LIFE"
With the harsh realities of life on the ground proving an obstacle to Noqreh's ambitious dream of female empowerment (she plans to become the first woman president of the new republic), the film finds only a series of hesitant, incomplete images in which to place hope: a pair of battered high heels, a once outlawed game of hopscotch, a clandestine photograph.
With Noqreh's chance encounter with a bemused French UN soldier turning the film's political gaze back on us, the assignment of guilt is clear: we bombed the country to oblivion; now we must aid its redevelopment before the ruins give birth to a second wave of extremism. Judging by the tragic events that conclude this haunting film, we may have already left it too late.
In Farsi with English subtitles.