The first all-Afghan feature to be made since the rise of the Taliban in 1996, Siddiq Barmak’s Osama could hardly be called a reactively decadent film—it has the plainspoken, single-minded, almost primitive tone of desert penitence. In fact, its sluggish, amateur-Kiarostami character would be off-putting if the material weren’t so powerful. Like Majid Majidi’s hokey Baran but with an infinitely more stringent perspective, the movie hinges upon a girl (12-year-old non-pro Marina Golbahari) having to masquerade as a boy in order to find work in a Muslim world. The milieu is everything: Under the Taliban, the punishment for cross-dressing—for deceptively penetrating the masculine world—could be capital. With one of the film’s most memorable visuals, Barmak gives us an introductory taste: A massive demonstration in Kabul of sky-blue-burka-shrouded women is put down with bullets and fire hoses.
Golbahari’s optionless heroine—helpfully dubbed Osama (a name with heroic connotations in Afghanistan) by a friend once she starts passing in drag—endures a hapless descent. Her tentative stint as an assistant to a sympathetic grocer is scotched once she bungles midday prayer rituals, and eventually she is simply shanghaied into bin Laden’s Islamic corps, surrounded by gun-toting boys and Nero-like Taliban fighters.
The lovely, watchful Golbahari is never convincing as a boy, and so Osama gives Barmak’s film a dreadful inevitability. In fact, given the film’s fierce anti-clerical position, it’s a surprise to learn that Iranian government ministries donated hugely to its production and editing. (The devoted participation of Makhmalbaf Film House is, on the other hand, a given.) Already a Golden Globe winner (the world’s Taliban-haters apparently include the Egyptian manicurists on Ventura Boulevard), Osama preaches to a very large choir, but does it with sober righteousness.