First, a brief description. We see (1) a varying number of â€œpeasantâ€� men carrying these large blackboards behind their shoulders, and exchanging fragmentary remarks about where to head, away from â€œdangerâ€�, in order to â€œteach2 any boys they can find, to read and count. (No continuity in their number of destination.) (2) Ragged â€œtribesmenâ€�, mostly old and grizzled, climbing inexplicably and interminably on high rugged rock face, high in a bare mountainous landscape, alternating with lines of boys carrying bulky cuboid packages crudely looped to their shoulders. They appear to have no provisions ( but some later produce walnuts to play â€œshove-walnutsâ€�), no provisions for shelter or sleep, though the one woman (!), bearing a 5 year old boy with her, has a kettle. At one point, they are fired on. We see two armed soldiers guarding a metalled road, high up, where the boys first, and then somehow the â€œtribesmenâ€�, attempt to crawl past on hand and knees hidden in a large herd of goats. This all goes on for a very long time. Speech between them seems to be mostly distrustful and aggressive, though an old man suffering from urine-retention is helped along and urged, almost brutally, to relieve himself, which he finally does when lying down to escape the shooting. Finally, still distrustful of their guide, they reach a line of coiled barbed wire, in a cloudy mountain pass, and kiss the ground as being their promised land. Apart from the strange opportunistic â€œmarriageâ€� between Said, the would-be teacher, and the one woman in the group, which ultimately has to be undone with a formal â€œdivorceâ€� (also â€œperformedâ€� by an elder on the roadside), this is the narrative. Like the spectacularly barren mountainside, the â€œstoryâ€� is unutterably boring, the voices and soundtrack distressful to hear, the continuity woefully lacking. As for the â€œextrasâ€�, they are of abysmal quality: the shots even more jerky, the visuals grainy with colour distorted, the voices mostly inaudible, and the spectacle of a Prize Award at Cannes the most disillusioning imaginable. The only positive remarks I can offer would stress the pitiful endurance of the â€œtribesmenâ€� depicted and, for the most part, playing their own roles; the stupidity of their behaviour and their talk; the simple-mindedness or innocence of the film-maker, and the demonstration of the immense gulf that separates such individuals from the conduct and principles (right or wrong) that the West would seek to introduce. The keynote is: PITY.
Time Out saysJust as assured as The Apple, and considerably more ambitious, 20-year-old Makhmalbaf's second feature - co-written and edited by her father Mohsen - is an enigmatic, metaphorical fable set in Iranian Kurdistan, hard by the Iraqi border. Two teachers break away from their nomadic group in search of pupils; one joins up with kids smuggling contraband across the mountains, the other with a bunch of elderly exiles trying to return to their homeland. Neither group is interested in education, especially as they're too busy watching out for unseen border patrols. There are astonishing images here, and some extraordinarily tense, suggestive set-pieces, particularly in the bleak final half-hour; but the occasionally repetitive narrative, the often oblique script, and the overall austerity make it less immediately accessible than its predecessor. Memorably poetic film-making, all the same.