CANNES, France--For all of the countless words and hours of news I've absorbed about Afghanistan, nothing has provided such an evocative portrait of that troubled land as a film by a 23-year-old Iranian woman that plays here this weekend.
"Panj e Asr," which translates as "At Five O'Clock in the Afternoon," looks through the eyes of some women who uncertainly test their new freedoms after the fall of the Taliban. One, who attends school, is asked by the teacher why she doesn't wear the uniform. It is because, she explains, if her father knew she were a student, he would punish her and forbid her to attend classes. It is clear that it is one thing in Afghanistan for women to have more rights, and another for them to feel free to exercise them.
The film is an official selection at the 56th Cannes Film Festival. Its director, Samira Makhmalbaf, is already a veteran; her "The Apple" (1998) played here when she was only 18, and her "Blackboards" won the Grand Jury Prize here in 2000. Her father is the veteran Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Kandahar," "The Silence"), and after dropping out of school at 15 (she found the teachers incompetent, she says in her web biography), she worked as an assistant for her father before striking out on her own.
"Blackboards," the story of itinerant teachers traveling remote mountain areas of Iran with their blackboards strapped to their backs, in a spare and forbidding film--too much style, not enough feeling, I thought. But with "At 5 O'Clock in the Afternoon," which she wrote with her father, Makhmalbad seems so caught up in the emotions of her characters that she's made a more universal and touchable film.
It's impossible not to be moved by a scene where three Afghan women, who have heard that Pakistan has, or had, or might have had, a woman president, answer questions about what they would do if they were president. One woman, who recalls that the Taliban killed her father and whipped her, says she would outlaw the Taliban, but she would not take vengeance. Her generosity is all the more touching because she has so little chance of ever being the president.
The inescapable feeling in the film is that women constitute a separate nation in their land, where many men believe they should be illiterate and without the vote or property. They meet secretly for classes and discussions, in a true definition of sisterhood, and then once again cover their faces and return to the world of men. In an image that occurs twice in the film, the heroine rides with her father on a cart that slowly sinks below the horizon on a desolate road, disappearing into the vast land.
Makhmalbad's film has the kind of urgency in which the message defines the style, and it is what festivals like Cannes are for. Cannes is also, of course, for extravaganzas like the multi-million-dollar European premiere and party for "The Matrix Reloaded," which played here as news arrived of his record-breaking U.S. opening. Italian star Monica Bellucci, who plays the sultry Persophone in the movie, was here to officially open the festival, and was joined by co-stars Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving (whose character is multiplied by 100 in one scene).
The Boulevard Croisette was filled with the usual throngs for the black-tie evening ceremony; families bring folding chairs and picnic hampers and jostle for a sight of the rich and famous, who promenade up the red-carpeted grand staircase in a blizzard of flash pictures. It is a little like, in another day, the poor people of Paree craning their necks for a glimpse of Marie Antoinette. Compared to Cannes, the red carpet arrivals at the Oscars are like opening day at a car dealership.
Among the other early successes this year is an American film, Campbell Scott's "Off the Map," based on a play by Joan Ackermann about a family living on its own in a desolate area of New Mexico. It is narrated by the adult voice of their 11-year-old daughter (Valentina de Angelis), who begins by telling us it was the summer of her father's depression.
Her father is played by Sam Elliott, a magnificent, grizzled presence--inward, quiet, often weeping--and her mother is Joan Allen, who suggests her husband take pills for his chemical imbalance but is speechless when he says simply, "I would prefer not to." A stranger (Jim True-Frost) arrives; he is an inspector for the IRS, intending to audit their returns, but he cares not for auditing and stays as an outrider of the family. Allen, usually an upright WASP (she played Pat Nixon) is here a bronzed, part-Indian prairie woman, who gardens naked and imparts some of her mysticism to her daughter.
Another strong film: "The Strays," by French veteran Andre Techine, who stars Emmanuelle Beart as a mother fleeing from Paris with her 13-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter at the time of the German invasion. Their car is destroyed during a Nazi attack on a road filled with helpless refugees, and they escape into a woods with a young man (Gaspard Ulliel), who helps them survive, and find a house where they live for a time. What is his mystery? And how will this bourgeois Parisian woman adapt to the wartime urgency of survival?
As I write, the weekend is upon us. Cannes is usually thronged with tourists on its first weekend, the roads out of town lined with campers, the cafes jammed, sightseers everywhere. It is said the crowds may be smaller this year, because a series of national transportation strikes will make it harder to get here. But with stars like Beart scheduled for the red carpet treatment, it will take more than a strike to keep the idolaters away.