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On the Margins of the Middle East

Osama, the narrative feature debut of Afghan writer-director Siddiq Barmak, presents us with a whopper of an opening scene. A blinding barrage of women in burkas parades through the streets of Taliban-ruled Kabul, demonstrating on behalf of the right to work. “Come see the revolution,” proclaims a Dickens-worthy street urchin, speaking to the man with the movie camera, a journalist of unspecified nationality who is recording the protest. Then, a panicked cry — “The Taliban are here!” — followed by eruptions of unseen gunfire and blasts of pressurized water, scattering the marchers like so many bits of unwanted sediment hosed down a suburban driveway. After which, the attention of the Taliban authorities turns to the “infidel” journalist, as they proceed to batter him, causing the camera to come unstuck from his hands and the images before us to smear into an indecipherable blur.

One of these women (Zubaida Sahar), accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter (Marina Golbahari), manages to find shelter from the chaos, and the rest of Osama is about how this all-female family (which also includes an elderly grandmother) attempts to survive in a country where women are not merely forbidden to hold jobs, but to so much as walk unaccompanied in the street or talk to strangers. Sahar’s character, whose husband and brother were both killed during Afghanistan’s endless series of internal and external conflicts, surreptitiously works as a nurse at a foreign-run hospital, which is soon shut down by the Taliban, who go on to take many of its international aid workers prisoner. The woman laments, “I wish God hadn’t created women!” And therein lies the seed of a desperate idea: The woman will disguise her daughter as a son, Osama, and send “him” off to work to support the family.

As some viewers will recall, a similar premise propelled director Majid Majidi’s 2001 film Baran, in which an apparently male Afghan refugee working on an Iranian construction site is eventually discovered to be a woman. Like that film, Osama is, at times, too indebted to the cinematic convention of cross-

dressing tales hinged on the suspense of potential revelation. But unlike just about every movie that has thus far emerged on the subject of the troubles in Afghanistan (including several made by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who donated much of the funds and equipment used to make this film), Osama offers us what feels like a true insider’s view, free from condescension and the temptation to view the country’s persecuted citizens as merely pitiable “others.”

Barmak directs with considerable visual flair, alternating bold, confident traveling shots with simple, lyrical images like that of a pair of sandaled female feet dangling (too suggestively for Taliban tastes) from the back seat of a bicycle. He also makes particularly effective use of a monaural soundtrack, isolating key sounds to pull us slowly into his scenes, at the center of which, invariably, lies the stunning Golbahari, a nonprofessional who recalls some of Bresson’s most haunting model-actors in her intense, anguished grace. Perhaps most significant, given that the film is the first to complete production in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted from power, is Barmak’s decision to set his story during the regime’s heyday. It is, in effect, his manner of reminding us of the way things were in his country five minutes ago, and how rash it is to think that the situation has entirely remedied itself just because CNN’s cameras have since moved on to Iraq.

 

Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold also grips us with a startling start, and one that is particularly unusual, and daring, in Iranian cinema: An armed robber holds up a Tehran jewelry store at gunpoint, killing the owner and, ultimately, himself. It’s an event torn from actual newspaper headlines, but one that has nevertheless resulted in Panahi’s film being banned in its home country, where the subject — let alone the act — of suicide is verboten. Crimson Gold then loops back on itself to show, but not necessarily to explain (or, rather, to necessarily not explain), the impulses leading up to that spasmodic burst of violence.

Scripted by the master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, for whom Panahi once worked as an assistant (and whose own Taste of Cherry ran into censorship problems of its own by featuring a main character who merely contemplated taking his own life), Crimson Gold is less explicitly about suicide than about a general condition of despair that casts itself over the denizens of Tehran like a thick cloud of automotive exhaust. For Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), a petty thief and part-time pizza deliveryman, that condition is heightened by his inability to come to terms with the fact that, in a society marked by deep divisions between classes, he is most conspicuously one of the have-nots. Upon their first attempt to buy a wedding gift for Hussein’s fiancée, Hussein and his future brother-in-law are both refused entrance to an upscale jewelry store in the “good” part of town. Later, when they return cleaned up and in better clothes, they’re admitted, only to then be told by the owner that they might want to invest in something that can be “more easily liquidated should the need arise.”

As embodied by the real-life schizophrenic Emadeddin, Hussein is a bear of a man with spaced-out eyes and a delayed manner of speaking that causes him to appear permanently lost in some private reverie. For much of the film, he traverses Tehran from its poorest tenements to its most glittering penthouses, a passive voyeur and our guide to momentary glimpses of how life is lived in those places. (Pizza, Panahi and Kiarostami comically suggest, is the great equalizer — an idea that culminates in a brilliant set piece in which a rich playboy, flustered following an argument with his girlfriend, invites Hussein in for dinner and a tour of his ostentatious bachelor pad.) Over time, we gradually pick up more details about the character: that he was once a soldier who served in military intelligence, that he is now heavily medicated on cortisone, and that, despite his sullen, unresponsive demeanor, people generally like Hussein. Yet, fascinatingly and frustratingly, nothing specifically accounts for his ultimate lashing out; no individual moment is offered up as the sort of “psychological break” we’ve been conditioned to expect from countless other movies and their Freudian character logic. Rather, Crimson Gold is, like the society it depicts, an unbalanced chemical equation, with Hussein its free radical.

This marks something of a departure for Panahi, whose three previous features, The White Balloon (also scripted by Kiarostami), The Mirror and The Circle, while all affecting and impressively styled, felt a tad too calculated, a bit too concerned with making sure all of their symbols and meanings and clever ruptures of linear narrative added up to some readily discernible payoff. In Crimson Gold, Panahi seems at last to speak with his own beguiling, cryptically beautiful expressiveness, which grows ever more absorbing with each of its purposefully irresolute turns. The result is the work of a funereal yet darkly funny neorealist, sounding the rallying cry against the inflexible maxim casually delivered by one of his own film’s characters: “It all existed before us. It will all go on after us.”

OSAMA | Written and directed by SIDDIQ BARMAK Produced by BARMAK, JULIE LeBROCQUY and JULIA FRASER | Released by United Artists

At ArcLight Cinemas, Westside Pavilion

CRIMSON GOLD | Directed by JAFAR PANAHI Written by ABBAS KIAROSTAMI | Produced by PANAHI | Released by Wellspring Media | At Laemmle’s Music Hall