A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
When she was a child, Nafas was taken to Canada, while her sister stayed behind in Afghanistan. Now Nafas has received a letter from her sister, who lost both legs after stepping on a land mine, and plans to kill herself during the final eclipse of the 20th century. Nafas sets off on a desperate journey to smuggle herself from Iran into Afghanistan, to persuade her sister to live. "Kandahar" follows that journey in a way that sheds an unforgiving light on the last days of the Taliban.
I saw the movie, by Iran's Mohsen Makhmalbaf, at Cannes 2001, where it was admired but seemed to have slim chances of a North American release. Of course 9/11 changed that, and Kandahar became a familiar place name. The movie is especially accessible because most of it is in English--the language of the heroine, who keeps a record of her journey on a tape recorder, and also the language of one of the other major characters.
Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) is unable to get into Afghanistan by conventional means, perhaps because her family fled for political reasons. In Iran, she pays an itinerant trader, who travels between the two countries, to bring her in as one of his wives; she wears a burqua, which covers her from head to toe, making the deception more possible. And as she sets out, we begin to realize that the journey, not the sister's fate, is the point of the film: Nafas is traveling back into the world where she was born.
Makhmalbaf and his cinematographer, Ebraham Ghafouri, show this desert land as beautiful but remote and forbidding. Roads are tracks from one flat horizon to another. Nafas bounces along in the back of a truck with other women, the burqua amputating her personality. There are roadblocks, close calls, confusions, and eventually the merchant turns back, leaving her in the company of a boy of 10 or 12 named Khak (Sadou Teymouri). With that terrible wisdom which children gain in times of trouble, he knows his way around the dangers, and takes $50 to lead her to Kandahar. At one point they trek through a wilderness of sand dunes, and when he finds a ring on the finger of a skeleton he wants to sell it to her.