Adaptation might not seem so unusual in Iran, which, as all conscientious moviegoers know, is a hothouse of self-reflexive cinematic practices. Blackboards, the latest release from this land of allegorydirected by then 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf from a script co-written with her father, Mohsenis, however, somewhat less a hall of mirrors than Samira's precocious debut, The Apple.
The Kurdish-language Blackboards is not a documentary, but as its title suggests, it is didactic. Indeed, it's an object lesson in which everybody is bowed down with something on their backmost obviously the itinerant teachers carrying their slates through the mountains of northwestern Iran. Searching for pupils, two split off from the group, Said (Said Mohamadi) and Reeboir (played by Bahman Ghobadi, the Kurdish director of A Time for Drunken Horses). Said meets a group of young boys used as mules to smuggle contraband across the Iran-Iraq border. Reeboir falls in with a gang of old men, trying to return to their ancestral village. As part of the deal, the incongruously cheerful Reeboir makes a marriage agreement with the film's lone woman (and professional actor, Behnaz Jafari). After this querulous ceremony, Reeboir hopefully gives his grim, grimy-faced wife her first lesson, writing "I love you" on his blackboard and coaching her to repeat it. She doesn't and gets a zero.
Makhmalbaf's close-upsnot to mention her incredible cast of garrulous geezerscreate a kind of kvetchorama of constant complaining in continual movement. Nothing if not arduous, Blackboards is filled with tricky shots in an improbable landscape. Danger is everywhere. The travelers are constantly hiding or fleeing from soldiers, and in the haunting final image, Reeboir's blackboard (still marked "I love you") disappears into the dust of battle. Like some recent movies from the House of Makhmalbaf, Blackboards is both shrill and soporific, and because everything is repeated five or six times, it can seem tiresomely simpleminded. Take it as persistence. Each time a kid learns something, he puts himself in peril. A response to futility, this movie is designed to lecture the rocksit's as true to its concept as Adaptation.
Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf
Written by Samira Makhmalbaf and Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Opens December 6
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Written and directed by Christophe de Ponfilly
December 4 through 17, at Film Forum
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