In this fine refresher course on recent Middle Eastern cinema, the woman’s place is usually confining, claustrophobic, and fraught with peril, be it the Iranian existential Alcatraz of The Circle (2000) or the chain of virtual prisons toured in Osama (2003), in which the heroine decides that the only way for a girl to survive in Afghanistan is to become a boy. Several of the films here bear the imprimatur of Makhmalbaf Film House, which in recent years has kept a single-minded focus on women’s coping mechanisms under misogynist theocracy. The semi-documentary present-tense mode of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001), set in the last days of the Taliban, or daughter Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (2003), about a young woman who aspires to be Afghanistan’s first president, has hardly dated amid reports that conditions have stagnated or actually gotten worse for women in some regions since the American invasion. Respite can be found elsewhere, in the physical and sexual awakening of the belly-dancing Tunisian widow in Satin Rouge (2002) or even in the acrid black-comic mishaps endured by the Palestinian would-be bride in Hany Abu-Assad’s Rana’s Wedding (2002), but most of these films share a ferociously controlled outrage, bone-dry gallows humor, and all too often, a candid, empirical hopelessness.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 1, 2005