The Truths About Charlie

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 allegory—directed by then 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf from a script co-written with her father, Mohsen—is, 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 back—most 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.

Write who you know: Cage's Kaufman enters his own script.
photo: Columbia Pictures
Write who you know: Cage's Kaufman enters his own script.


Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Opens December 6

Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf
Written by Samira Makhmalbaf and Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Leisure Time
Opens December 6

Massoud, the Afghan
Written and directed by Christophe de Ponfilly
New Yorker
December 4 through 17, at Film Forum

Makhmalbaf's close-ups—not to mention her incredible cast of garrulous geezers—create 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 rocks—it's as true to its concept as Adaptation.

Seventeen years in the making, in even less hospitable terrain than that of Blackboards, Christophe de Ponfilly's Massoud, the Afghan is a highly personal portrait of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance who was blown up by Al Qaeda assassins two days before last year's terror attacks put Afghanistan at the center of American political geography.

Ponfilly is scarcely less self-conscious than Charlie Kaufman. His first-person report draws on two previous movies he made about Massoud—an engineering student turned mujahideen who fought first against the Soviets and later the Taliban—and is filled with voice-over ruminations about his own frustration and despair. "Never had filming seemed so useless," he declares over some 1993 footage of ruined Kabul. A few years later, Ponfilly is back filming the ruins of these ruins. Massoud ends in 1998, with the commander preparing to launch a new attack on Kabul. Massoud is calm and ascetic, with a sly sense of humor (the French-speaking hero tells Ponfilly that the world figure he most admires is Charles de Gaulle). It's not the least of Afghan tragedies that this noble warlord would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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